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The Black Sheep

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"The Black Sheep" is a short story by L. Frank Baum. His version of the "Ba-Ba Black Sheep" rhyme, it is one of the selections in Baum's 1897 collection Mother Goose in Prose.

Summary

After shearing, a flock of sheep discuss their experience. The members of the flock question the ram as to why the humans want their wool, and what they do with it. Some of the sheep are sympathetic with woolless humans and are willing to accept the arrangement that harvests their wool, though the ram of the flock tends to by cynical and bitter about the whole matter.

The one member of the flock who is black has struck up a friendship with the boy who lives in the lane. (In this tale, sheep and people can converse.) The boy opines that he needs a winter coat, but his mother is too poor to buy him one. The black sheep discusses the matter with the farmer. Since each sheep averages two bags of wool per shearing, the sheep has a proposition: if she can grow a third bag worth of wool, will the farmer donate that bag to the boy? The genial farmer agrees.

The black sheep drinks plenty of water and eats only the best grass, and she has the boy supply her with salt to help her coat grow. The bitter old ram ridicules her project, and spitefully tries to grow as little wool as he can. The black sheep's effort is fruitful: at the next shearing, her third bag of wool goes to the boy in the lane, and is enough to provide his coat as well as a dress for his mother. The farmer is so disappointed with the old ram's wool yield, though, that he sends the beast to the slaughterhouse.

The black sheep is gratified when the boy pats her head; to her, that gesture is satisfaction enough.

Background

This is one of the dozen stories in Baum's collection furnished with a Maxfield Parrish illustration.

"The Black Sheep" is one of the minority of fables in Baum's collection in which animals talk (see "Hickory, Dickory, Dock," "Pussy-cat Mew," and "Little Bun Rabbit"). It is unique in that all (or should we say both) of the humans in the story can understand and converse with the sheep.

The idea of providing someone a needed winter coat also occurs in Baum's story "Aunt 'Phroney's Boy."

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