1927: Smoky the Cowhorse (A Horse with No Name)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Will James’ Smoky the Cowhorse chronicles the life of a free-spirited horse – both the good times and the bad. Smoky follows the trend of the other Newbery books, being both tedious and a hundred pages too long. Where it differentiates from the others is in the greatly-needed addition of character development. This Newbery Award winning tale is a more personal story than the ones that have come before it. While I didn’t enjoy reading it, I appreciated that it went a little bit deeper than just the adventures of a horse. The book was held together be the overarching theme of transformation. Transformation is the driving force of this novel, as the horse’s name becomes forgotten as he changes ownership several times and, as a result, loses his sense of identity before finding it again.

As my reading of Smoky the Cowhorse coincides with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, here is a little mash-up review of the book since it mirrors a monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Smoky goes through several transformations throughout the book, from a free foal running in the wild to a cowhorse to a bucking bronco to a riding horse. His ever-changing identity mirrors the seven stages of man and the joys and sorrows that come with it.

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

The story begins with a young, nameless horse roaming the free range. This was actually my favorite part of the story, as the horse is truly free in a way he will never be again. While he is allowed the freedom to go wherever he wants, the dangers of the wild are also there in the form of “cayotes” and lions.

Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.

Roped in by the cowboy, Clint, the mouse-colored horse is given the name Smoky. In this section, the horse must learn to submit to the man and be broken in so the cowboy can ride him. While Smoky misses the freedom of his youth, the cowboy may be offering him a relationship that may be just as good – possibly better.

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

The story of Clint and Smoky is essentially a love story, as they both begin to connect and learn to trust each other. Their friendship is the heart of the book, and this stage of his life (as a cowhorse) is who he is meant to be. Unfortunately, fate has a different plan in mind.

Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

The story takes a steep turn, as the two become separated and Smoky must enter the rodeo to become a bucking horse. He is severely abused (animal activists beware!) and no longer is nice to any human. He has reverted back to a primal, animal savagery. Smoky becomes “The Cougar” and loses his sense of self, and no man is able to ride him in the ring. The story definitely picks up pace in this section, as The Cougar is now in a no-win situation.

And then, the justice, In fair round belly, with a good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part.

Eventually, The Cougar no longer has the spirit to fight his riders as a bronco, and he is sold off and renamed Cloudy, so people will no longer be scared of him. Now broken with no fight left in him, he becomes a horse that people ride for leisure. At this point, he has lived a full, if tortured, life. While he doesn’t impart wisdom to others, he offers enjoyment to those who want to ride him.

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

He is now a shell of his former self – both mentally and physically – as he is sold to a man who will work him to death and then kill him off for chicken feed. He has fallen down the Chain of Being and is solely at the bottom of the animal pile. If this hadn’t been a children’s book, I would have dug this potential story ending as it shows how everything is interconnected and every person (or horse, in this instance) plays its part in the grand scheme of things. Luckily for Smoky, I was not the author.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Having lived a full and varied life, he is reunited with the cowboy. In his rehabilitation, Smoky must now rely on the cowboy to give his life meaning again, and he finally comes full circle and regains his name and the freedom to run on the range. The tale ends rather poignantly as the cowboy must wonder if Smoky will ever recognize him again, but the bonds of friendship are not as broken as he thinks.

Though this story had some merit and dug a bit deeper than the other winners, it was still really hard to get through. It was written in dialect, so I had to imagine someone with a Southern accent narrating the book. Additionally, the grammar was “western,” as well, with words intentionally misspelled, which was a bit irritating to read.

If you like Westerns and horses, read it. If you prefer your books to have a bit more class, skip it. Or as Shakespeare would probably say of this book, “truly thou art damned, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side.” Yep, that pretty much sums up my opinion of this book. Or maybe (said with a Texan accent) “omittance is no quittance.”

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1926: Shen of the Sea

VERDICT: Trash (though entertaining, not a classic)

Sally’s Rating: 3

Arthur Bowie Chrisman’s Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children is a collection of short story retellings of Chinese folklore. The accuracy of these tales is questionable, but the writer did an impressive job at inserting some greatly needed humor into the stories.

The shen showcased in Shen of the Sea refers to Chinese demons who cause mischief and trouble throughout the land. Dragons also make an appearance in several of the stories. “Chop-Sticks,” “That Lazy Ah Fun,” and “Ah Tcha the Sleeper” retell the origin tales of chopsticks, gunpowder, and tea. “Shen of the Sea,” “How Wise Were the Old Men,” and “Four Generals” feature clever protagonists in traditional trickster narratives. As in many folktales, not every story features a remarkable hero; instead, many of the stories are about ordinary people stumbling their way into greatness by accident or clumsiness.

While the names in the stories (i.e. Ah Fun, Cheng Chang, etc.) are culturally insensitive in modern times, the story reads as an American’s version of Chinese folktales. Chrisman’s storytelling style is suited for children, though, as he uses many rhyming names and Chinese words. While the plots may be a bit simplistic, the odd blend of Chinese and American language makes these tales all the more enjoyable to read.

While women did not fare that well in this book, “The Rain King’s Daughter” features a clever female character that actually triumphs over the males in the tale. Unfortunately, in the other love tales, “The Moon Maiden” and “Many Wives,” women are back in their traditional “need to be saved” domestic roles.

Shen of the Sea was a quick, entertaining read. While the stories were not memorable, the book was clever and comical, making for a satisfying read.

1925: Tales from Silver Lands

VERDICT: Trash (sort of)

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5

This compilation of short stories is written in a style reminiscent of the Aesop’s Fables book I had as a child. Like many mythology or fable books, most of the stories either have a moral or seek to explain a feature of the natural world. These particular stories are all drawn from tales the author heard while traveling through Central and South America.

I agree with Sally that reading the stories over a longer period of time would have provided greater (not to mention longer lasting) enjoyment. However, I actually didn’t hate this book. For one thing, this is the only book that we’ve read thus far that isn’t blatantly racist in the fashion of its times. The author truly engaged with the people from whom he heard the stories and did interesting work condensing them into fairly readable stories. Although the characters in the stories often skew a bit towards the gentle, pastoral native stereotype, they still have agency and make a wide variety of choices, both good and bad.

My personal favorite stories were “The Tale of the Gentle Folk”, “The Wonderful Mirror”, and “The Cat and the Dream-man”. The first presents the mythology of the huanaco (a type of camelid similar to a llama). A group of people refused to harm other living beings even to save themselves, instead choosing to transform into huanacos to escape from harm. Their prince died in a valley, and that is why all huanacos choose to die in that same location.

“The Wonderful Mirror” is closer to a fairytale than a fable. It even comes complete with a wicked stepmother. Although a (male) hero comes along to reveal the treachery of the stepmother, the daughter/princess is the one to shoot an arrow through the body of her stepmother, the toad. Honestly, I find Huathia, the hero, more sympathetic than many of the male heroes from the Western fairy tale cannon. He’s a simple llama herder who goes to help a kingdom where evil has come, not fighting for honor or glory but merely choosing to do what he can to help another person.

The cat story is an amusing story involving trickster-like antagonists. I’m a sucker for trickster figures in almost any context, and this is no exception.

Overall, while I’m not particularly eager to sit down and reread this book, I did find a number of the stories amusing and/or interesting. After all, who else is going to explain witches and huanacos in the same work?

 

1925: Tales From Silver Lands

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1

Have you ever wondered how the hummingbird got its colorful feathers? How about why the rat ended up with its long, hairless tail? How lazy people evolved into monkeys? How a wicked wizard turned into an armadillo?

No? Well, neither have I.

Charles Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands is a collection of short folktales from Central and South America. While I normally appreciate mythology and fairy tales, this book was really dull. I can hardly remember the difference between most of the storylines.

My favorite short stories were “A Tale of Three Tails,” “The Humming-bird and the Flower,” “The Bad Wishers,” and “The Cat and the Dream Man.” I felt like these ones had fairly interesting narratives; most of the other ones had little dialogue and were easily forgotten.

This book would probably have been better if I hadn’t read all the stories at one time. As a result, they all kind of blended together. While it was certainly better than Hawe’s The Dark Frigate, I would not recommend this book to anyone except as a cure for insomnia.

1924: The Dark Frigate (or, the most forgettable pirate story every written)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 1/5

As Sally posted, the full title of the book reveals the entire plot of the novel. My version: Phillip Marsham gets the flu, loses his father, shoots some plates, falls in with pirates, falls out with pirates, and barely escapes the noose. Seriously. That’s basically it. Oh, and the tavern wench that “promised” she’d wait for him got married six months before he drags himself back to the English countryside. Phillip doesn’t even get the girl. The author, even using the same basic series of events, could have created a engaging/charming/funny novel. Instead, despite all the action, the plot plods along, leaving the reader not caring what happens to any of the characters. The author is so busy asserting that Phillip is a brave, upstanding, honorable lad that he fails to include any room for growth. ‘Cause, you know, a teenager that spends time with pirates and faces such moral dilemmas as presented in The Dark Frigate will come out exactly the same person who went to sea.

The language use is also odd. The author tries to replicate the feel of 17th century writing (I think. That or he’s just a bad writer). This results in a very stilted feel that, combined with the utter lack of character development, makes the book almost as torturous to read as the punishments meted out by the pirate captain in the book. However, should you be in the market for hilarious insults, this is the book for you! There are no end to creative pirate curse words. Everyone else, run away as if pirates were coming to kill you.

1924: The Dark Frigate (or, How to Talk Like a Pirate for Dummies)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1/5

If you want a summary of this book, all you have to do is read its full titleThe dark frigate: wherein is told the story of Philip Marsham who lived in the time of King Charles and was bred a sailor but came home to England after many hazards by sea and land and fought for the king at Newbury and lost a great inheritance and departed for Barbados in the same ship, by curious chance, in which he had long before adventured with the pirates.

Talk about long-winded! The title pretty much spoils the entire story! 

In Charles Boardman Hawe’s The Dark Frigate, young Philip Marsham flees England and becomes a sailor of the sea. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the boy’s ship is seized by pirates, and he is forced to accompany them on their murderous voyages.

I thought a pirate story would be an exciting read, but this book did not rise to the occasion. It lacked the humor and swashbuckling fun of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and, instead, The Dark Frigate is nothing more than a boring tale filled with bland characters and a snooze-worthy plot.

The characterization was the biggest problem in The Dark Frigate. The novel follows Philip Marsham, a young man with no distinguishable personality traits. Most of the supporting characters blend together, as well, and I couldn’t be bothered to tell the pirates apart from one another. This may have been a result of the author’s style of language being incredibly dense.

The only good thing that came out of reading this book was that I was able to add some new pirate lingo and insults to my vocabulary. The language and dialogue is unintentionally funny, as characters continually call each other names – lobcock lapwing, puddling quacksalver, etc. Several old proverbs and sayings are littered throughout that also add to the amusement of the modern-day reader. Take this passage for example:

“The host in fury seized the little boy by the ear and dragged him shrieking across the table. ‘Now, sirrah,’ quoth he, ‘of whom mak’st thou this squalling and squealing? A stick laid to thy bum will doubtless go far to keep thy soul from burning.’” (47)

Oh, dear! The language is so stilted and rigid that it is hard to imagine that people use to converse in this way. 

While I did not like the majority of the book, I found myself quite liking the chapter entitled “The Wonderful Excellent Cook” since Hawes instilled some dark humor within the character’s interactions. While trying to make a meal, the cook goes about entertainingly abusing his help and ends up cooking fish that is too salty, and, as a result, the captain punishes him by making him eat the over-salted food and go without water for a couple of days. This type of dark humor would have made for a more enjoyable read, but instead, we end up with a book that was such a slog to get through.

Regrettably, The Dark Frigate’s focus on lackluster characters and dense language sucks all the fun out of a potentially entertaining adventure.

1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (stereotyping entire continents in one fell swoop)

VERDICT: Treasure (sort of….)

Rating: 3/5

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the 1923 Newbery Medal Winner, is a much quicker read than the previous year’s award winner. In it, the adventures of the English Doctor Dolittle, speaker of most animal languages, continue. Lofting replaces the omniscient narrator of The Story of Doctor Dolittle with a first person narration by Tommy Stubbins, a boy who becomes Dolittle’s assistant.

Roughly the first third of the book covers events leading to the doctor’s voyage. Many of the chapters fail to move the plot forward, although, in all fairness, a few of them were my personal favorites. For example, Dolittle convinces the court to allow a dog to testify in front of a trial court. P1020222

We learn that Doctor Dolittle has a South American equivalent, Long Arrow, who specializes in plants but also speaks to animals. When Long Arrow disappears, Doctor Dolittle sets sail for Spider Monkey Island, where he was last seen. After the requisite travel misadventures (never sail with Dolittle if you want both the boat and yourself to arrive at the destination in one piece), Dolittle, his assistant Tommy Stubbins, Polynesia the parrot, Bumpo son of an African king, Chee-chee the monkey, and Jip the dog arrive on the island. Dolittle rescues Long Arrow and other tribe members from a cave, teaches them about fire, and helps them defeat a rival tribe. For his troubles, both tribes crown him King of the island. Eventually, Stubbins and Polynesia “free” the Doctor from his kingship and everyone hitches a ride home inside a glass snail. Yes, you read that right, a see through snail, last of his kind, takes the crew home to England. At least that’s one means of transport Dolittle can’t sink.

The storyline and plot are decent enough. Although they’re not riveting, events move along. The biggest negative to this book, in my opinion, is the blatant stereotyping and racism. Bumpo, the son of an African chief, joins the crew after studying at Oxford. His dialogue consists chiefly of malapropisms and other attempts at comic relief. He primarily comes into play when bashing and muscle is necessary. As a word of caution, the original and early editions of this book do use the “n” word, so if you’re looking to have a child read this, either search out a newer edition or be prepared to discuss the language use. The South American tribes are depicted in an unflattering light as well. They never discovered fire, fail at attempts to prepare edible food, and construct buildings that fall down rapidly. Lofting repeatedly hammers home their characterization as, alternately, warlike, simple, and superstitious.
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As with Story of Mankind, the illustrations were one of my favorite features. However, they were also problematic, as they continued the ridiculously racist work begun in the text. The illustration on the right is just one example, with Bumpo (on the far right) depicted with very ape-like features.

Overall, this book is a fairly fast and entertaining read. Unlike the previous choice, it didn’t arouse strong feelings, either positive or negative, in me. If I did have children read this, contextualization, particularly of Lofting’s portrayal of non-white cultures, would be critical.