Sunday, August 16, 2009

Newbery VI

Continuing where we left off...

In 1927 the America Library Association took a break from heaping praises on less than stellar collections of legends from faraway lands, and turned to a quintessentially American story in Smoky the Cowhorse, by Will James.

This book follows the life of a range horse, from his birth, though the various occupations he's put to, and finally to being put out to pasture for retirement. James makes the horse the center of the story, and tells it as realistically as possible while making Smoky an exceptional beast. (The horse never voices an opinion, let alone talks; James tries to express silent instinct or antipathy without anthropomorphizing the animal.)

Indeed, Smoky isn't actually his name, except inasmuch as a bronco buster named Clint calls him that for a while. Most of his life he's a nameless, wild horse, free on the range, learning to stay with the herd, avoid and kill rattlesnakes, fight wolves, and so on. Annually he is corralled by cowboys and made to do range work: herding steer, which he grows to enjoy. After some misadventure, he is known by the name of Cougar as a famous cowboy-killing bucking bronco, and later still he's called Cloudy as an indifferent riding horse for greenhorn dude equestrians.

Things look bleakest for him when, older and enfeebled by a lifetime of action, he’s sold as a workhorse, regularly beaten and mistreated. Of course there’s a happy ending, but James lets it unfold with patience; nothing is neatly packaged or trite, and Smoky is far from a pet, or even so much as tame, even at the end. It’s a superior animal story, but unfortunately made a bit difficult for the modern reader by two factors.

One, James writes in a sub-literate dialect ("them horses was running," "If Smoky could only knowed, there’d been a lot of suffering which he wouldn't had to've went thru"), which may have been intentional or not, but either way it's not charming or conducive to good reading practice. And then, common words, even equine vocabulary such as "gait," are misspelled, which indicates that the ungrammatical dialect may have been the best James could do. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it makes for hard reading.

Second, and far worse, there's a deep racism in the book. The two villains are Mexican. One is referred to with contempt as a "breed" (short for "half-breed," he being half-Mexican, half "other blood that’s darker") with no morals. The other is a similarly immoral, cruel man who is beaten for his cruelty by a white man in front of a laughing sheriff who stops the fight, but only because the Mexican's death would make work for him, "same as if he were a white man." It's a pity, because James is a decent storyteller, and though I don’t care for animal tales as a rule, this one drew me in. This is a book a product of its time, certainly.

Recommended for children: I'm afraid not.

Recommended for adults: It's not bad, if you can look past the ugly racial views and the cowpoke writing style. Not for everyone, at the very least.


daveawayfromhome said...

I think I may have read that story when I was a kid (or something pretty much like it). I also seem to remember one about a burro or something. Dont remember the racism though, just the animal cruelty (isnt that always the way?).

Chance said...

You may have read a bowdlerized version for modern sensibilities.