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smoky the cowhorse

5 september 2010

How many books published in 1925 are still in print? The Great Gatsby. Mrs. Dalloway. Arrowsmith. The Professor's House by Willa Cather, The Mother's Recompense by Edith Wharton, and such minor works that canonical writers produced that year. Some genre classics and cult favorites: The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, for example, and after some time spent in the doghouse, the first Charlie Chan novel, The House without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers is now back in print. And of course, preserved by the power of the Newbery Medal, Smoky the Cowhorse.

Without its Medal, there is absolutely no way Smoky the Cowhorse would exist now in any form except a few mouldering library copies, prey to the inexorable weeders who make room for new growth. But because a committee of librarians thought well of it 85 years ago, it gets a new cover every couple of years, and you can walk into any chain bookstore in America and buy a copy. And since it falls on the happy side of the Sonny Bono copyright law, it still generates royalties for somebody – though even the identity of its author is a malleable thing.

Smoky the Cowhorse (like The Great Gatsby, actually) is about changing names, pulling up stakes, and altering identities to fit circumstances. The novel mirrors, perhaps, the life of its creator, a French Canadian named Joseph DuFault who moved West and adopted the handle "Will James," the better to live as a bronco buster and movie stuntman, and along the way write a Will-Rogersish yarn about cowpunchers and mustangs.

"Smoky" is only one of our equine protagonist's identities. It's his favorite moniker. As a free-range colt, he's unnamed, naturally. When he runs afoul of humanity, he becomes "that mouse-colored gelding," though the novel is wholly silent on his actual transition from colt to gelding. He's Smoky at the apogee of his career, as the Cowhorse of the title. Then, rustled by a wicked halfbreed, Smoky descends to namelessness again, only to re-emerge as The Cougar, the buckingest rodeo horse in the West. When his bucking subsides, he becomes Cloudy the rent-a-horse. Only at the end, reunited with his favorite rider Clint, does Smoky become Smoky again.

In structure, then, Smoky is in the pedigree that stretches from Black Beauty to King of the Wind: the episodic story of a horse who must adapt, in a single lifetime, to all the different exemplary stages of horsehood.

But Smoky, unlike many of its literary cousins, is told in a peculiarly affected dialect, and serves a severely racist ideology. It isn't moribund (but for the life-support of the Newbery list) just because it's dated – any text from 1925, especially The Great Gatsby, now seems dated in terms of dialect, topical reference, and values. But in addition to being dated, Smoky is both aesthetically irritating and politically offensive. And it's hard to believe it didn't seem so to a substantial fraction of the American audience in 1925.

The racist stuff doesn't come into Smoky till about 2/3 of the way through. Up till then, the book has only aesthetic flaws. It's told in a stilted wannabe vernacular, full of spellings like "crethure" and "eddicated," with egregious subject-verb disagreements that the librarians of 1925 forgave in their rapture over the book's folksiness.

In addition to the dialect, the narrative perspective is peculiar. The teller of Smoky is omniscient – so omniscient that he knows every mental event in the lives of the various horses and predators that populate the Call-of-the-Wild-like opening chapters of the book. He also knows what evil lurks in the hearts of all the humans in the novel (and aside from cowboy Clint and a friendly trail boss named Jeff, they're a dastardly lot). But he's so homespun that he also has to keep interrupting his at-times-incomprehensible cowboy jargon with footnotes so that we'll know what he's talking about. The whole effect is one of a speaker ill at ease in any language. It's a conceited self-consciousness sometimes seen in children's books with an uncertain sense of audience, and it grates on the reader.

Again, forgivable as a mere flaw. But the book's racism goes deepest, and makes it near-unreadable today. Smoky is captured by an evil rustler, as I said, about 2/3 of the way through. This is the first interesting event of a dull story about training and work. Unfortunately, its premises are appalling. Smoky's captor is

a half-breed of Mexican and other blood that's darker . . . a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring, and with no pride. (220)
Say what, exactly? The cruelty of the "breed," as James's narrator keeps calling him, makes the formerly unprejudiced Smoky into a beast who hates all men of color. When he becomes a rodeo bronco, Smoky saves his worst abuse for non-white cowboys: "his hate was plainest for the face that showed dark" (251).

In a less-dated children's novel . . . well, you wouldn't see this plot strand in the first place. But if some sort of racism did bubble up, you'd see it alleviated by a Mexican or African-American cowboy who would show Smoky that prejudice is only skin-deep. Will James just turns the screw tighter, though. At the end of his rental career, Smoky is sold to the "chicken man," an indeterminately non-white fellow who starves horses and sells them, literally, for chicken feed. When Clint finds Smoky suffering at the hands of the chicken man, he takes a whip and gives the guy some of his own treatment. A whimsical sheriff investigates the commotion, and "grinning," says to Clint, over the body of the half-dead chicken man,

"Say, cowboy . . . don't scatter that hombre's remains too much, you know we got to keep record of that kind the same as if it was a white man, and I don't want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was." (315)
This isn't tangential to the book, and it isn't just attributable to "the times," though the 1920s were racist times enough. This is a white author for children who saves his funniest line for the climax of a book: a smirking, teasing reinforcement of the superiority of whites and the justifiable lynching of nonwhites.

Though Smoky the Cowhorse is still in print, it may not be doing as much damage as one might fear. I doubt any teacher who assigns book reports on Newbery Medalists finds a lot of eager takers for Smoky. (Though since the publisher blithely reprints an undated New York Times testimonial on the back of the book, saying that no horse story "can compare with" Smoky, there may well be the occasional horse-mad child who still seeks out the novel.) It's likely, in fact, that I am one of a handful of people who will read all the way through Smoky this year: the opening sequences are so boring that probably very few readers experience its uglier passages. But the practical absence of harm is not enough to justify ink, paper, and shelf-space for perpetual reprintings of Smoky the Cowhorse.

James, Will. Smoky the Cowhorse. 1925. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.