1927 Newbery Medal: Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James

Smoky the Cowhorse, by Will James, was published in 1926 by Buccaneer Books.

Smoky knows only one way of life: freedom. Living on the open range, he is free to go where he wants and to do what he wants. And he knows what he has to do to survive. He can beat any enemy, whether it be a rattlesnake or a hungry wolf. He is as much a part of the Wild West as it is of him, and Smoky can’t imagine anything else. But then he comes across a new enemy, one that walks on two legs and makes funny sounds. Smoky can’t beat this enemy the way he has all the others. But does he really want to? Or could giving up some of his freedom mean getting something in return that’s even more valuable?

Rating: 3/5

Smoky the Cowhorse reminded me a great deal of Black Beauty, although it comes nowhere close to Black Beauty’s lasting power and “classicness” and, of course, the point of view is not the horse but rather either various cowboys or an omniscient narrator. The novel is about the horse named Smoky and his adventures on the range in the Old West. The things you might expect to happen do: Smoky grows up, gets into trouble occasionally, narrowly escapes the claws of predators a few times, and enjoys his freedom until the cowboys come calling.

Then, you have the requisite training period, then the bonding between the horse and the human, then the times they go out together and rope cattle, and then, of course, since happy times can’t last forever, something terrible happens and for the rest of the book you’re rooting for the horse and his human to find each other again.

It’s a good horse book in terms of hitting all the notes that you might expect in a horse book, but the downside is that the vernacular of the book itself is not easily read, especially 90 years later. It’s written as if someone from that time period and from that area was telling the story, so a lot of the terminology is unfamiliar, since it deals with herding and roping and things like that, and it’s in the accent and dialect of, presumably, a cowboy, which means there’s a lot of “figgering” and verb/subject disagreement and other things to make a grammar teacher frustrated. It makes the book seem more authentic, but at the same time I can see it being very distracting and make it hard for a reader to get into the book.

Overall, I enjoyed Smoky more than some of the other 1920s Newbery Medal books I’ve read, but to be honest, I doubt I’d pick it up again. I’d rather read Black Beauty, which tells a similar story in a better and much more memorable way.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

Smoky’s mammy took the lead, and after the rest of the bunch was thru parleying with the strange horses they joined in with her and the colt and all strung out for the foothills. The next day they all was up in high country again and everything of the day before was forgotten, forgotten, all excepting with Smoky and the other little colts. They still remembered some, on account that it had all been mighty new to ‘em, and besides, the sting of the fresh brand was there on their left thigh to remind.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2st7D4J

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