I woke up to a beautiful morning. It was a stereotypical beautiful morning. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was nice and cool. We’re in the middle of an pleasant Alabama spring, which lasts for like two weeks before the scorching heat sets in, and makes everything miserable until November. By far, though, the most beautiful part about waking up this morning, was that, as of last night, I was no longer in the middle of Smoky the Cow Horse.
I’m finished! Through! I feel like a newly released prisoner, stepping out into freedom for the first time in years.
I know it sounds like I’m being dramatic, over-exaggerating a little, but I really don’t feel like I am. I disliked this book that much.
The first 1/3 of the book was tolerable. I kind of liked seeing Smoky in the wild, it was a tad boring maybe, but it still had potential to maybe pull out a three star rating from me. I didn’t hate it in the beginning.
Aesthetically, the second third of the book drove me crazy. The author was obviously stretching the story out as far as he could take it. He told us the same things over and over again, then he would give a little anecdote to illustrate the point, and then he would make the point again, almost like the “In conclusion” part of a 10th grade research paper. Smokey was ornery towards other people. He only liked Clint. I figger that’s cuz Clint was nice to him. One day another man tried to ride him, and Smoky bucked him. Smoky only liked Clint. He was ornery towards other people. It goes like that for many, many maddening pages.
By the last third of the book, I was pretty much over it. Any other book, I would have abandoned by this point, but I want to read through the Newbery winners, so I had to keep going. (It felt much like The Dark Frigate all over again) I was tempted to just skim, but I stayed strong and slogged my way through. James was still boring me and saying the same things over and over again, but I didn’t have any real strong content objections to the book, just aesthetic ones.
Then, all of a sudden, Will James got all racist on me. I read a few reviews of the book before I started it, and I didn’t see any mention of this, so it really shocked me. It comes out of nowhere, you feel like you’re getting to the end, you’re gonna make it, and then BAM! Will James jumps out and makes his boring redundant book, a racist, boring, redundant book. I’ll just let you see for yourself.
There’s this guy stalking a bunch of horses. Smoky is in the group, and the guy’s going to steal the horses. The narrator, stops to describe the guy. “A half-breed of Mexican and other blood thats darker…he was a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring and with no pride.”
It kind of slapped me in the face. What did he just say?
The narrator doesn’t call this character a man any more after this. From then on, he calls him “halfbreed” sometimes, but usually just breed for short. The breed beat Smoky with a stick. The breed tried to sell him etc.
I kept on reading. This “breed” is a pretty mean guy with no redeeming qualities. It struck me that James didn’t even do that with the horses. There are good horses and bully horses in the book, but the narrator is sympathetic to them all. The bullies have reasons to be mean. The “breed” is only bad because of his skin color. It seemed to me that James believed that people with dark skin were worth less than horses.
A little while after I thought this, the narrator pretty much goes and says the same thing himself.
He calls the guy a “scrub of a degenerate halfbreed and not fit to be classed among humans.”
There’s another scene later in the book. Smoky has become a cart-pulling horse, and a man of a dark complexion is beating Smoky with a whip. (It would seem from reading this book that white people didn’t beat horses. Everyone else did.) Clint takes the whip and starts beating the guy. The sheriff sees him, and tells him in a joking manner (the book says he’s grinning as he says it) “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 were a white man, and I don’t want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was.”
I’ll just let that speak for itself.
I read some reviews from other Newbery travelers, and they couldn’t get past the western language and intentional misspelling in the book. I didn’t have a problem with that, at all. It fits the tone of the book, and even seems a little poetic at times. The other issues I had with the book totally eclipse that.
I know that I’m looking at things through a 2014 lens, but how did this blatant racism not make people uncomfortable, even in 1926? I know that it was a different time and people saw things (and each other) differently, so I accept that this book was publishable in 1926 (It definitely wouldn’t be now) but the Newbery? A committee of educated librarians thought that this was the best book of that year for kids? If I ever heard my son calling someone a halfbreed, well, let’s just say there would be very extreme consequences.
I read somewhere that there are only two children’s books that would have been eligible for the 1927 Newbery still in print. Smoky and the 8th Dr. Dolittle book. (Smoky wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for that medal) A lot of the good children’s books from this time were coming out over seas. such as Winnie the Pooh, but come on. Pick something else, anything else, in which the narrator doesn’t demean a group of people, and treat them as if they are worth less than horses. I know the eight Dr. Dolittle book probably wasn’t the best of the series, but is it racist? No? Ok, let’s give it the medal.
This is the first time I’ve said this, but the 1927 Newbery committee let us down. Big time. The more I think about this the more upset I get. I’ve even thought about weeding this book from my library. The only thing making me hesitate is that shiny gold medal on the front. But to be honest, Smoky the Cow Horse has kind of taken some of the luster off of the Newbery for me. I need to keep reading them, to get that specialness back. They can’t get much worse than this one, right?
Next up: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon