“Beautiful Joe,” The Dog Who Taught Us Empathy

For generations of my family, the late 19th century novel “Beautiful Joe” has served as a model for morality


Penn libraries

It’s high summer in Georgian Bay, and I’m with my cousin on the verandah at the cottage. The air smells like history with a dash of vanilla, or maybe that’s from the book I’m holding. The kids — now adults — are down at the smooth granite shore, swimming, diving, laughing, playing stick with the dogs, when Bella takes off again. They shout for her, but the dog doesn’t respond. A black lab with a year under her belt, Bella’s swimming across the bay, trying to catch the bubbles created by her paddling, impervious to the fact that each stroke takes her further from shore. If we let her go off on her own, she’d drown, but that would make us negligent and cruel. One of the kids swims out to rescue her from the danger of her own joy.

Bella shakes off, and the kids go back to what they were doing. The dogs clamber up the humped rock to the verandah, their nails clicking against the striated Canadian Shield stone, and my cousin and I pick up where we left off before Bella’s rescue: talking about books. I’m holding the late 19th century novel Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders; I haven’t read the book since I was a child, and I’m jazzed. What really blows my mind is that the book was written by a woman — I’d always assumed it was written by a man, but the author used her middle name, suitably male, to publish. My cousin Andrew, a hard-working farmer, leans in.

Nearly everyone in my family is a prolific reader; characters in novels may be fiction, but not to us. I first came across Beautiful Joe as a ten-year old — it’s a Canadian classic, and my mother gave me her copy, the same copy her mother, who came from a farm, gave her.

Our watch phrase is “Be kind” — Joe’s motto. We focused on the core tenets espoused by Joe: beauty, love, goodness, evil. The evil was the hardest.

Narrated from the point of view of an abused dog, the novel recounts the atrocities of animal cruelty. A mongrel living in a milkman’s stable in the 1890s…