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.”