Monday, June 8, 2009

Smoky, The Cow Horse by Will James

310 pages
copyright 1926, renewed 1954
Charles Scribner's Sons
New York, NY

As I mentioned in my What's On My Nightstand May post, I stumbled upon Smoky: The Cow Horse by Will James while browsing the fiction section of my local public library. As has happened many times in the past, once I discovered the book I was determined to bring it home and read it, not only because the story plot seemed interesting, but also because the book smelled so incredibly good, just as an old book should.

Published in 1926, Smoky was an instant hit. The book was published in September of that year and reprinted ten more times before the end of year! It won James the Newbery Medal for children's literature in 1927. It also caught the attention of Hollywood which resulted in three film adaptations over the next forty years, including a version with Fred MacMurry (a favorite actor of mine) in 1946, a version which was narrated by Will James himself in 1933, and most recently in 1966.

Smoky is the story of a horse, born in the wild and trained by a cowboy to become one of the best cow horses in the western United States. The book, told in the third person, but from Smoky's perspective, chronicles the adventures Smoky encounters throughout his life, as well as the friends and enemies he makes along the way.

I believe what Will James wrote in the preface of the book illustrates perfectly what the story of Smoky is all about: "To me, the horse is man's greatest, most useful, faithful, and powerful friend. He never whines when he's hungry or sore footed or tired, and he'll keep on going for the human till he drops. The horse is not appreciated and never will be appreciated enough, -- few humans, even them that works him, really know him, but then there's so much to know about him... The horse I wrote of in this book is not an exception; there's quite a few like him... Smoky is just a horse, but all horse and that I think is enough said."

Generally I am not a big fan of westerns. I enjoy them, but I don't read very many of them. I guess growing up I saw more than my share of western movies (my family owned the entire John Wayne collection of movies on VHS). For a long time I felt a little burned out when it came to tales of cowboys, horses, and shoot-'em-up westerns. And so, when I began reading Smoky I wasn't sure if I would enjoy it, but I can honestly say I did.

Smoky is an interesting, fast paced, and humorous read. James' writing style is unique -- he wrote as he talked , which means the book includes its share of slang and informal English. Still the book was an easy read and I found the book realistically and beautifully depicted what life was like in the wild west for both man and beast during the early part of the 20th century. I think it's important to note that because Smoky was intended as a children's book there is a lack of extreme violence and language. But it isn't missed. I was impressed, though not surprised with how well the story is told (including the bad), how black the blackguard is depicted, all without spelling it out in a vulgar or profane way.

Overall, I really truly enjoyed Smoky. I learned a lot about horses, cowboys, ranches, rodeos and the like all the while being caught up in the exciting adventures that Smoky encountered. My heart strings were pulled, I laughed, and when I reached the end of the story I was pleased and inspired to imagine what happened in Smoky's remaining days.

Yes, Smoky was a fun read. A true American classic from the 20th century that should not be forgotten. It is a great read for young and old readers alike and a fun read aloud for young children who have an interest in cowboys and horses. On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent I would rate Smoky: The Cow Horse a 4. I really enjoyed this book and hope to share it with my children one day. While I borrowed this copy, I am on the lookout for any used copies of James' novels. If the others are as enjoyable as Smoky they are books I'd consider adding to my personal library.

As a side note, for those interested: Will James wrote and illustrated 23 books, all of which include his own beautiful pen and ink illustrations. For more information check out the Nevada Writer's Hall of Fame website, the Will James Art Company, and The Will James Society.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

LOL - I love that you picked up this book in part because it smelled good! But I agree with you, old books should have a particular smell and that smell makes them valuable somehow.

It was fun hearing about a special find! Thanks.