It seemed like Mother Nature was sure agreeable that day when the little black colt came to the range world and tried to get a footing with his long wobblety legs on the brown prairie sod. Short stems of new green grass was trying to make their way up thru the last year’s faded growth and reaching for the sun’s warm rays. Taking in all that could be seen, felt, and inhaled, there was no day, time, nor place that could beat that spring morning on the sunny side of the low prairie butte where Smoky the cold was foaled.
So begins the tale of Smoky, born on the Rocking R range in the early 1900’s. In a lot of ways, this book is kind of like a western version of Black Beauty, although Smoky doesn’t narrate his own story (and the horses don’t talk to one another). Instead, James tells us about Smoky’s life, from his birth out on the range onwards. At first, James’s method of writing like he talks, with a sort of western drawl, including things like saying “tho” instead of “though” and writing out words like he pronounces them (“cayote” instead of “coyote” etc) really got on my nerves, but once I kind of got into his groove I really enjoyed the story. As a kid, I LOVED stories about animals, and I’m not sure how I never got around to reading this one – possibly because it’s a Newbery Award book – I have an inherent distrust for books with awards as they tend to be
depressing deeply meaningful.
Like Black Beauty, James draws attention to methods of horse handling, both good and bad. He explains the reasoning behind the cowboy way of “breaking” a horse, and talks about misconceptions of that method. But he also presents men who did want to break a horse’s spirit, and paints their methods as despicable. Smoky himself lives life on the range for the first several years of his life, although he isn’t technically a wild horse – at the time (and still, actually), many ranches simply let their horses do their own thing until they were needed. Every year a roundup was held wherein that year’s colts were branded and gelded, and the horses now old enough to be broken were cut out and kept. The brood mares, younger horses, and retired horses were all let back out on the range until the next year. This story follows Smoky through his early years on the range, where he runs into all kinds of wild critters, to his training to become a true cow horse. Later, Smoky is stolen and sold. He works in a rodeo and as a rental horse in a tourist town, and, like Black Beauty, drops lower and lower in the ranks of horses through age and mistreatment, before ultimately being reunited with friends from better days.
It’s been almost a hundred years since this book was published, so there are some instances of language that a current-day reader may find insensitive or offensive, most notably when Smoky is rustled by a thief who is “a half-breed of Mexican and other blood that’s darker, and [mistreatment of his horse] showed that he was a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring, and with no pride.” While James has other non-white characters who are not “bad guys”, his method of referring to this character as a “darky” or “half-breed” throughout this portion of the story is a little uncomfortable, even as it is a reminder of how different our sensibilities are now than they were in 1926.
James himself is an interesting character – born in a covered wagon in 1892, self-educated, cowboy/illustrator/author. (He did his own drawings for the story.) I think that one of the reasons that James’s voice in this book stopped annoying me was because it was so sincere. James wasn’t trying to sound this way: it’s just the way he sounds. It didn’t take long for me to hear this entire story being told in a nice, deep, western drawl – a campfire story about a gutsy little horse.
While Smoky didn’t become my new favorite book, it was still an easy 4* read. It’s an interesting look at a slice of life written by someone who was there, and if you have a horse-crazy kid in your life, this would be a great read for a slightly advanced reader, or as a discussion book as there are a lot of adventures to unpack.
NB: This was originally a title I picked to read for #20BooksofSummer. Better late than never, right??