Saturday, April 1, 2017
Smoky the Cow Horse by Will James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book is basically Black Beauty in the wild west. Like Black Beauty, it follows the life of a horse from birth to “retirement” highlighting the treatment - and abuse - the horse encounters throughout his life. Instead of being set in 19th century England, Smoky takes place in western America, in the early 20th century. But whereas the purpose of Black Beauty was to highlight the mistreatment of horses at that time, Smoky is more of an homage to the rugged American west, where men are men, and they “break” horses to do their bidding.
The titular horse, Smoky, is born to a semi-feral herd of horses, and is spotted by a horse breaker named Clint who works on a cattle ranch. He captures Smoky and begins breaking him to bridle and saddle, and to eventually being ridden. And while Clint is careful to not break Smoky’s spirit (as we are told repeatedly), his breaking methods would make a modern horse trainer cringe. Smoky remains an aggressive, angry horse who will buck off and attack any rider other than Clint. Despite this, Smoky becomes an excellent cow horse, and Clint is the envy of all the other ranch hands.
During the winter months, Smoky is turned loose with the other horses who are not needed to work the ranch, and he ends up being stolen. The thief is described as a “half-breed” and “dark faced” and we are led to believe he is half Native American and half African American. He’s never given a name, and is constantly referred to as “the breed” by the author, and described as a very bad character, with no redeeming qualities. This blatant racism would be completely unacceptable in a book written today. And it really detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Smoky ends up as a rodeo “bucking bronc” with a reputation as a man-killer. His life with the rodeo is brutally portrayed, and quite painful to read. After he gets too old for the rodeo, he’s sold again, and again, each time ending up more abused and neglected. There’s a semi-happy ending, but the abuse he suffered for half the book pretty much overwhelms that.
I should also mention that the dialog is all done in western slang, much as Twain does with dialects in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This lends some verisimilitude to the story, but tends to wear on the reader after a time - it seems much more artificial than Twain’s usage.
I think I tried to read this as a little girl, when I was totally horse crazy, but I couldn’t get through it - which for a voracious reader who read years beyond her grade level says a lot. I think it was probably a combination of the harsh life depicted for Smoky, along with the dialect.
If you give this to your child to read, be SURE to discuss the racism, as well as explaining that horse trainers today would not do as Clint did. But, honestly, I can’t think of a compelling reason to give this book to anyone.