Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Smoky the Cowhorse and Other Fictions

The inside jacket text of my library copy of the Newbery medalist for 1927, Will James's Smoky the Cowhorse, says that "A cowboy, son of a cowman, Will James was born in a covered wagon in Montana." Well, no, he wasn't. As a matter of fact, James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d'Acton, Quebec, Canada. I do not know precisely where he was born, but covered wagons would have been extremely uncommon in Quebec even in 1892, so it seems safe to assume that this detail too was fictionalized. Dufault learned wrangling and other cowboy skills when he relocated to Saskatchewan as a young man, so it also seems likely his father wasn't a cowman, which like covered wagons would have been almost unknown in nineteenth century Quebec where cattle herds were too small to require specialized staff. Dufault changed his name to William Roderick James when he fled Saskatchewan for the States after being accused of cattle theft. After several years of drifting and working at this and that, he was arrested for cattle theft in Nevada and served 15 months in prison. Upon his release he spent some time working as a movie stuntman and then served a year in the U.S. army during World War I. When the war ended, he worked as a wrangler, and sold his first book, after which he made his living from writing and probably also with the various ranches he bought with the proceeds of his books, until his death from alcoholism in 1942.

The dust jacket quotes James as saying, "I write for everybody like I would talk to friends who are interested in what I have to say," and Smoky the Cowhorse is written in what is purportedly a written version of a cowboy's tall tale, but even before I finished the book and did the internet research that told me James was not who he claimed to be, I didn't buy it. Those who genuinely speak an authentic regional or cultural English dialect always write in standard English prose to the best of their abilities when it comes to putting words on paper, unless they are reproducing a dialect in a dialogue between characters, and even then it's best to use a light touch in terms of misspellings and grammatical errors so as not to make the text too unreadable or to make the character sound too caricatured or ignorant. To write an entire book in a cowboy's supposed semi-literate folksy vernacular is an irritating affectation, especially when said cowboy uses words like "eddication" or "crethure" but has no apparent difficulty with the correct spellings of "commotion", "functioning", and "superintendent". My subsequent discovery that James was actually French-Canadian did nothing to decrease my annoyance.

Like the 1926 Newbery medalist Shen of the Sea, Smoky the Cowhorse is another example of a regrettable faux exoticism that seems to have deceived and dazzled early Newbery selection committees again and again. To be fair, they weren't the only ones taken in by James's folksy act. In 1930, Will James wrote a fictionalized autobiography, Lone Cowboy, which became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and even my library copy of Smoky the Cowhorse which, as I've said, features James's fictional biographical information on its dust jacket, appears to have been published circa 1980, which means that his personae may have remained intact as late as that. It's astounding to think how much our contemporary easy access to information has changed such things.

There are occasional modern day cases of authors slipping fictionalized memoirs by their publishers, such as Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love, or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but these days such fabricators are rare and are generally caught out within a year or two of publication. Fabricated biographical details used to be much more common. It used to be standard practice for movie studios to demand that their contracted actors and actresses change their names, lie about their ages, and even pass their illegitimate children off as much younger siblings if not deny their existence completely, but now it's so easy for anyone with internet access to check IMDB that no one bothers. There is still quite a lot of lying among politicians, but it's usually promptly and gleefully called out by the likes of Jon Stewart or John Oliver. Unfortunately too many citizens continue to embrace the lies circulated by those too shameless, too dysfunctional, and too greedy and power-mad to ever admit that they've been lying no matter how high the evidence is stacked against them, but these days the truth is usually out there for anyone who cares to seek it, and human beings have long hated being lied to and have little respect for liars once they know the truth. I didn't hear too many people defending James Frey when he appeared on Oprah after his memoir's debunking and Oprah Winfrey all but turned him over her knee. A book written in a fake dialect would never be published by a traditional publisher now, much less selected for a major literary award.

That's not to say Smoky the Cowhorse is completely inauthentic. James did indeed work as a cowboy, he was a rancher, and he knew, and I suspect deeply loved, horses. Smoky the Cowhorse relates to us the life of a cowhorse from the time of his birth on the range through his training and work as a cowhorse, his subsequent theft, and his passing through the hands of various owners and change of names and work as he becomes by turn a rodeo bronco, a riding horse rented out by the day, and a broken down plow and cart horse destined for the knackers, before he is finally rescued by and reunited with Clint, the cowboy who originally broke him in and loved him. It's a narrative arc very similar to that of Black Beauty's, and though as a literary effort Smoky the Cowhorse is far inferior to Black Beauty (I pined for Black Beauty's perfect prose the entire time I was reading it), James's anger over the extent of the cruelty and neglect a horse could endure from its owner is as palpable as Anna Sewell's ever was.

The deliberately misspelled and ungrammatical prose of this book makes it a tedious chore to read, and the opening chapters that describe Smoky's early years running free on the range are very boring, but I haven't even gotten to the book's ugliest flaw: its racism. The horse thief who steals Smoky is described as "being a half breed of Mexican and other blood that's darker... a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring, and with no pride", and is referred to through the subsequent pages as "the breed". I don't even know where to start when it comes to deconstructing that appallingly racist characterization, and it only gets more disgusting when I consider James's own history as a cattle thief. And it gets worse. Because of his treatment at the hands of the horse thief, Smoky becomes a horse who hates all men of colour, or as James so delicately puts it, "his hate was plainest for the face that showed dark". I have no real experience with horses, but I am very, very skeptical that this would even happen.

Then, in a later incident, when Clint finds Smoky again and subjects his abusive owner, whom we have been given to understand is non-white, to a horse whipping, a sheriff approaches Clint, grins, and says, "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 was a white man, and I don't want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was." Clint then proceeds to go "back to his victim and broke the butt end of the whip over his head" as the sheriff watches. Smoky's former owner goes to jail for animal cruelty, but Clint faces no consequences for assault. He gets to take Smoky home with him and then "spend the evening 'investigating' with the sheriff". His vigilante assault is considered to be not only just deserts but a joke, and he is elevated to the level of a de facto officer of the law who works with the sheriff as an equal. I don't believe for one minute that a native American or a Mexican who had attacked a white horse owner for animal cruelty would have escaped any consequences for his actions in the American west of the 1920s. While a white cowboy like Clint who attacked a "hombre" for his treatment of his horse may well have gotten away with it in that time and place, James's representation of it as a just and even satisfying turn of events is unacceptable.

Between the poor and affected quality of its prose, the dullness of its opening chapters, and the stunningly bigoted treatment of its non white characters, this is not a book that deserves to still be in print, but it is, because that is the power of the Newbery medal. Choose well, future Newbery committee members. You really do not want a Smoky the Cowhorse to be your legacy.

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