Written by Marshall Saunders
Illustrated by William M. Hutchinson
Published: 1955
Modern Abridged Edition

My name is Beautiful Joe, and I am a brown dog of medium size. I am not beautiful, and I am not a thoroughbred. I am only a cur.

I was born in a stable on the outskirts of a small town in Maine called Fairport. The first thing I remember is lying close to my mother and being very snug and warm. The next thing I remember is being always hungry. I had a number of brothers and sisters–six in all–and my mother never had enough milk for us. She was always half-starved herself, so she could not feed us properly.

I am very unwilling to say much about my early life. I have lived so long in a family where there is never a harsh word spoken, and where no one things of ill-treating anybody or anything, that it seems almost wrong to think or speak of such a matter as hurting a poor dumb beast.

Beautiful Joe is much more akin to Black Beauty in that it is an animal’s first-person account showcasing both the great kindnesses and the great cruelties of humanity towards their four-legged kin. It is not always a pleasant book to read due to those depictions of animal cruelty, so if you are easily affected by such things, be warned.

The dog Joe is born in a home where neither he nor his mother and siblings, nor the other animals or human occupants are cared for by their master, the milkman Jenkins. Joe’s mother, who could be a stand in for any woman in a abusive relationship, does not leave Jenkins because she loves him, even when he kills all of her pups except for Joe in a rage. Not long after that, she dies, leaving Joe alone. Jenkins flies into another rage when Joe bites him and cuts off both of the puppy’s ears and his tail. Fortunately, Joe’s cries of pain bring a savior in the form of a man named Harry, who gives Jenkins a thrashing then spirits Joe off to the Morris house where he is healed and cared for. What follows is essentially a series of vignettes detailed different events that happen to the newly dubbed Beautiful Joe in his new home, or of stories he overhears from the human family or which are told to him by other animals. The longest of these is when his favorite person, Miss Laura, takes Joe on a summer trip to an idyllic farm, where the reader hears all about the good way to take care of farm animals. The human characters are a little thin, either too good or too bad to be fully believable, but we are also seeing them through the eyes of Beautiful Joe, and animals see far fewer shades of grey in human behavior.

Beautiful Joe is very much a condemnation of inhumane behaviors and the poor treatment of animals and managers to punish the perpetrators it depicts. Some may find the tone a little preachy, and there is far more reference to religion than I remember from when I read it as a kid, but it is a vital message that bears repeating, even today when animal cruelty is finally receiving more of the attention and condemnation it deserves. This message was very deeply impressed on me. Thanks to books like Beautiful Joe and Black Beauty, to this day I am incensed by the mistreatment and neglect of animals, who are so dependent on the care humans can give them and cannot speak for themselves.

If you do not have the time, patience, or funds to take care of a animal, don’t get one. If you find you can no longer take care of it, don’t abandon it. Take it to a shelter where it can be cared for and given a new home. Support your local shelters and animal rescues. Report and condemn animal cruelty and neglect. Animals shouldn’t have to suffer because of the foibles and follies of humans.

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American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

The Humane Society of the United States