I have to say, I envy Mim Eichler Rivas (author of Finding Fish). She has stood, writerly speaking, like Columbus on the shore of a new world - and has had the wit to chronicle her experiences.
Jim Key was a horse, of course, and by far the most intelligent horse we humans know about. I emphasize this because it’s entirely possible that given the right set of circumstances, there might be many Jim Keys cavorting in unknown pastures, waiting for their Dr. Key, the Pygmalion to the equine Galatea. Jim Key could, by all accounts, read and figger – he could even write, awkwardly, and he loved center stage.
Jim Key was a crippled foal, out of a Hambletonian sire and an Arabian dam, the latter having been distinguished as a psychic. He was the darling of his owner, the renowned and remarkable Dr. Bill Key, entrepreneur, poker player, ex-slave liniment salesman and horse-whisperer. Since the good “doctor” had a reputation as a vet, he was obligated by profession and by bonds of love to nurse this special colt, who responded by growing up to be a handsome fellow.
Dr. Keys was amazed to see that Jim had begun to imitate the actions of his dog, trying to get Bill to throw a stick and then fetching it. Well, this was something, but something that only someone like Bill could really take full advantage of. With the indulgence of his vet spouse, Bill soon had Jim sleeping in the house like the dog and nodding or shaking his head appropriately to carefully posed questions. But Jim’s educators moved more slowly than their student. He could open drawers and soon learned to distinguish signs on individual drawers, the first step to reading.
With incredible patience and by slow increments, Bill taught Jim to pick letters out of an alphabet of cards, and in some way, we shall never know exactly how, to “spell” words called out spontaneously from the audiences who raved about him.
But Jim Key had a higher destiny – it was Bill’s wife who recognized that. She felt he would be an inspiration and would work for the betterment of humankind, and so it happened. Jim became an adored symbol to thousands of schoolchildren throughout America, who faithfully promised Jim that they would not abuse animals. So profound was his influence that one man who was close to Jim never forgot nor entirely forgave himself for hitting a mule as a child. This was Jim’s immortality.
Rivas found the story, unlocked it from papers and personal accounts. It is the tale of the man, a brilliant Negro who outsmarted the Massa, the Yankees, the Rebs and the hangman, and of the horse who became his dearest companion and an example to the world of what human kindness and patience can do for an animal.