Friday, February 10, 2012
The Winner's Circle: Smoky, the Cowhorse, by Will James (1927)
This can be done, and done well -- The Incredible Journey is a good example. But that book has a specific narrative arc, something that imposes structure on the silent life of animals. Smoky, a largely episodic novel with terrible pacing, has some kind of overall narrative involving Smoky and Clint, the human who eventually becomes his owner, but huge portions of the book have little or nothing to do with that.
It's also a highly problematic book in that the human villain is referred to as "a halfbreed of Mexican and other blood that's darker," or, for short, "the breed," and is given no redeeming characteristics of any kind. Overt racism is all too common in children's books from the 1920s -- there's a reason that you can't purchase an unexpurgated version of The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, after all -- but it's extremely uncomfortable, especially since the book doesn't offer much in the way of compelling plot or characters that would give a reader reason to even try and overlook the negative racial aspects.
And yet. as truly dreadful as Smoky, the Cowhorse is, I'm hard-pressed to say what should have won the award instead. The one unquestioned classic children's book published in 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh, was written by A.A. Milne, an Englishman, and so was ineligible. Hugh Lofting churned out number eight in his series, Doctor Doolittle's Caravan, but even Lofting's fans don't remember that as one of the better titles. Margery Williams, in the stretch of her career between her 1922 breakthrough with The Velveteen Rabbit and her 1937 Newbery Honor for Winterbound, published The Apple Tree, but that's such a minor work in her career that it's all but forgotten. Most of the other major children's authors working at the time simply happened not to publish anything that year. Famously, 1927 was one of the three years in which no Honor books were named, and it appears that there may have been a good reason. (Rachael found a fascinating article that indicates that the Doctor Doolittle book and Smoky are the only two children's books published in '26 that a) were eligible for the Newbery, and b) were still in print in 2001. Given that one was still in print because it was in a famous series, and the other was in print because it won the Newbery, that's not much of an endorsement for the year.)
If I were forced to guess, I'd bet that The Apple Tree would have been a better choice for the award, simply on the theory that even a mediocre Williams title would be better than the dreck that is Smoky. But what I think requires no guessing is that there was a very real reason that the ALA thought an award to encourage publishers to print good children's books needed to be established, that reason being that American children's literature in the 1920s was Not Ready For Prime Time. The 1927 award is the one that best illustrates this point, but it's only the most obvious of several early examples. (I'm looking at you, The Cat Who Went To Heaven.)
Anyway, it's nice to be able to look back and see how far we've come, but that's about the only thing that can be said for Smoky, the Cowhorse. I can really only recommend it for people trying to read all the Newberys, and even then, I'd save it for the end.