The Newbery Medal in 1927 was awarded to Smoky the Cow Horse by Will James, and it is a prime example as to why I almost never read books about animals. The story begins with the birth of Smoky the horse. At first he has a great life with his Mammy. There is a very detailed account of his adventures as a young colt wandering the terrain with his mama keeping a close watch on him. He encounters a wolf and a mountain lion and quickly learns that they are not his friends – throughout the story he will find that he has few friends. His mostly peaceful way of life soon comes to end when he first meets humans who have come to brand him. Humans, with one exception, do not prove to be a friend to Smoky either.
I found this book in its rather excruciating detail to be kind of boring, and when it wasn’t boring me, it was breaking my heart. Smoky has this great life at first with his mom. He roams free; it’s a good life for a young horse. Then come the humans, and he is broken by a man named Clint. This actually works out for awhile because Clint loves Smoky and they develop a great relationship. Of course happiness for Smoky can’t possibly last, so Smoky is kidnapped by horse thieves and after that his life is pretty much crappy. He is overworked, abused, and because he is stubborn and not a fan of humans, he ends up working as an “outlaw rodeo star” where he bucks off everyone that tries to stay on him. By the end of the book, he is an old horse who is pretty much broken in both body and spirit. Miraculously, he is found by Clint (who has never forgotten him), and over time he begins to heal.
There is beautiful language and an appreciation for the Western culture that really comes through, but I just didn’t really like this book. I say the language is beautiful, but it is written in a Western dialect that I am just not sure I like. For example, mighty is a frequent descriptive word as in that was “mighty good” or the horse was “mighty strong”. There is a lot of “figgering”. Verb usage includes phrases like “he knowed this” or “he seen that”. “Critters” abound throughout the book. There is something poetic though in the way James writes, and perhaps some readers would find his language suitable and endearing.
For me personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to read a book filled with such difficulty and sadness for a poor defenseless animal. I am anticipating Ole Yeller somewhere up the Newbery reading pipeline, and I am already trying to figure out a game plan for reading that. My old game plan, which had worked for 48 years, was to avoid that book like the plague. But now – it awaits.