CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 25 . . . . March 2, 2018
According to a note on the book's back cover, "The story is based on the personal experience of the author who lived on this farm, and who loved and cared for the real-life Little Beauty."
Kids and horses are a popular combination as subject matter for children's books. This short chapter book features Billy, 10, and his sister Molly, aged five. The title's Little Beauty, the foal of Maud, was born mid-May on a Manitoba farm ("just East [sic] of the Riding Mountain" according to a back cover note). Billy is excited, both by being able to name the foal and by the possibility of having a horse to ride. But the mare Maud is a Percheron, a breed of draft horse, and Billy's father, a practical farmer, points out to Billy that, while Little Beauty is small now, she "will grow up to be a work horse, like Maud. You can look after and raise Little Beauty as your own, but when she is three or four years old, she will be one of the work horses on the farm. She will be too big to be a regular riding horse."
The major difficulty with Little Beauty is that it doesn't have a sustained plot. Instead, only two significant incidents occur between the book's mid-May opening and the beginning of a new school year. In one, an inquisitive Little Beauty is sprayed by a skunk, and in the second, when a careless Billy on the last day of school leaves a gate open, the horses escape and Little Girl is frightened by an approaching train. "In her fright, she repeatedly crashed into the barbed wire fence, its long barbs ripping and tearing at her chest, cutting deep into her brisket." (Knowing "brisket" only as a cut of meat, I had to look up its meaning: the breast or lower chest of a quadruped animal). While each incident was interesting it itself, together they are insufficient to maintain reader interest.
Little Beauty has other faults, with one being that Van Humbeck never establishes when, timewise, the book is situated. Two obvious hints that it's set in the past are the appearance of the horse-scaring steam locomotive and the fact that horses are still being used for farm work (though the family obviously has a tractor as it's used to pull a stoneboat out to retrieve the barb wire wounded Little Beauty). Billy and Molly have an older brother, Aime, but he makes only the briefest of appearances and could have been easily excised. Since the book is based on the author's personal experience, perhaps the real family had a third child, but Van Humbeck needed to keep in mind that he was writing fiction, not biography. Additionally, chapter 9, the penultimate chapter, is out of place as its focus turns to Molly and her desire for a pony.
Finally, the book identifies an editor, and it's really inexcusable in such a short book that she did not catch Van Humbeck's misuse of it's vs its and his repeated incorrect use of Dad vs dad and Mom vs mom.
Little Beauty had potential, and it's unfortunate, for instance, that Van Humbeck didn't develop the historical setting in greater detail. For example, on p. 30, a reader encounters the following:
With the passage of time and increased urbanization, how many of Van Humbeck's 21st century intended readers know what "haying" is and why it's done, or even what a horse-drawn "rake" is? Similarly, why are potatoes "hilled" and what is a "hiller"?
Dave Jenkinson, CM's editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.