Monday, February 6, 2017

1927: Smoky the Cowhorse

Poor, poor children of the 1920's, if SMOKY THE COWHORSE was the best children's literature had to offer. I started reading SMOKY THE COWHORSE nearly one year ago. I read one-third of it and couldn't bear it. It has sat on my desk at school ever since, bookmark holding strong. Recently, I felt compelled to get back to my Newbery reading so I mustered up all the focus and determination I could and pushed through...

It is difficult to summarize such a wandering epic story. Smoky was born wild, in western United States, He and his mammy are herded by a human and branded, but released. Smoky grows big and strong only to be kicked out of his own family when a black stud comes along and takes the herd for his own. Smoky roams the countryside with a lone buckskin and a strong pardnership forms. This is the first act of the book, and it does not unfold as quickly as I just made it sound.

Act II begins with Smoky being rounded up by the cowboy Clint, who immediately takes a liking to Smoky because of his wild, stubborn spirit. Clint is determined to break Smoky and over five years time, his hard work pays off. Smoky is loyal to Clint, and Clint alone, and earns a reputation as one of the best cowhorses around.

One winter though, while Clint is away during a wild snow storm, Smoky and his group get herded away by the horse thief. Thus begins a turbulent Act III. Smoky doesn't take to the horse thief too well. Smoky is beaten repeatedly for being stubborn and one afternoon, enough is enough and Smoky pounces on the thief and kills him. Smoky is found wandering the wild, taken in by a rodeo as a man-hating, bucking bronco nicknamed The Cougar and becomes famous. After years of headlining the sport, Smoky loses his spirit once again and finds himself as a downtrodden riding horse nicknamed Cloudy. In the end, after years apart, he winds up with cowboy Clint again and this raises his spirit.


SMOKY THE COWHORSE was written by a real cowboy, Will James, so one can excuse the poor cowboy grammar throughout. It actually adds to the authenticity of the story. I heard Sam Elliott in my head, narrating. It's obvious that James loves his subject and his passion comes through in his careful detailing of every one of Smoky's behaviors and mannerisms. I read that Smoky was based on one of James's own horses and that makes sense to me after reading. He handles Smoky with a lot of care.

This did not read to me as a book for kids. There is not one single child character in the entire book! The violence in Smoky's journey is heartbreaking and definitely fits in among other sad-animal books for children. It read to me as a love letter from an adult cowboy to a horse he loved dearly. And apparently, according to Will James himself, was never published as a book for kids. This is interesting and raises questions about the crop of children's literature in 1927 considering the committee didn't choose any Honor books either.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Personally, I didn't like it. It took me a long time to finish. It isn't a genre I am interested in or enjoy and Smoky's roller coaster of a journey was a bit too much for me. On the other hand, I can appreciate Will James's authentic cowboy voice and the compassion he writes Smoky with. Smoky and Clint's relationship was nice, in a rough cowboy way and I am glad they found each other in the end.

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