Of the 1920s medal winners, Smoky is the only one set in North America. One of the criticisms of the book is its poor grammar and spelling. The author, Will[iam Roderick] James, spent much of his life as a real cowboy, rodeo performer, and stuntman in Westerns. In his 1930 autobiography, Lone Cowboy: My Life Story, James claimed to have been born in a covered wagon in Montana, his mother dying when he was a year old, and his father, a Texas cowman, killed by a steer three years later. James said he was then adopted by a French-Canadian trapper, who drowned when Will was 13.
Besides the effort to make Smoky sound authentically “cowboy” or “Western,” there may be another reason for the poor English. Will James was actually born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec in 1892 and grew up speaking French. The truth came out in James’ will five days after his death in 1942. Dufault was fascinated by cowboys and horses, and at the age of 15, left his family and headed west to Saskatchewan. There he learned English and eventually worked his way up on ranches into a horse wrangler job. Sometime in 1910, he slipped across the border and changed his name. Besides his real jobs mentioned in the previous paragraph, he also served a year in the Nevada State Prison in 1915-16 for cattle rustling, and in the United States Army for a year in 1918-19, working with horses as a wagoner and mounted scout.
Injuries sustained in his bronco-busting days eventually turned James to making his living with art and ultimately writing. According to Jim Bramlett in Ride for the High Points: The Real Story of Will James, his third book was "...first titled...Smoky, A One Man Horse...the story ran in Scribner’s Magazine as a four-part serial from April through July, 1926. In September the title was changed to Smoky The Cowhorse and...[it] appeared in book form. With its forty-two pencil drawings and four pen-and-ink drawings the book was an overwhelming success....in 1929, [it] became one of Scribner’s Illustrated Classics featuring nine oil paintings.”
According to William Gardner Bell, this “deluxe edition…featured James’s first oil paintings and was reissued by Scribner’s as recently as 1962” (“’My Interest Lays Toward the Horse,’” American History, March/April 1996). I would love to obtain a copy of this edition. While the detailed black-and-white illustrations are relatively clear in my library’s 1954 (possibly as late as 1980) edition, it is rather shabby, and the 1997 hardcover reprint edition I recently purchased to replace it suffers from a problem noted in a May 9, 1965, New York Times article by Thomas Lask on “Repeat Performances”: “The drawings by Mr. James seem to have been printed too often from the same plates.”
Here is a copy of one of the illustrations from the 1929 edition, from the Montana Memory Project:
The cover pictured above is from a 2000 reprint by Mountain Press, and does feature one of James’ drawings.
At 245 to 310 pages (depending on the edition), even with illustrations, this is not an easy read. Accelerated Reader ranks the book at grade 6.5 reading level (and at middle grades, 4-8, interest level) and Scholastic Reading Counts at grade 6.6 reading level (interest level grades 6-8). Nevertheless, this book would probably appeal to good readers of all ages who love horse stories, and others (boys in particular) who like animal and/or action/adventure stories.
I think it’s interesting to read some of the reviews of Smoky the Cowhorse from the 1920's:
From the Independent, September 25, 1925: “A grand book; it is hard to decide which part of it is the better, the writer’s text or his illustrations.”
From “R. L.” (probably Robert Littell, one of the editors) in New Republic, November 10, 1926: “[Smoky’s] career is told in a breezy, consciously uncultured but nevertheless rather attractive, often really charming, manner. Mr. James’ easy-going knowledge of what happens inside Smoky’s head…and his lending of biped motives to his gallant quadruped brands him as a 'nature-faker,' though one of a most guiless and readable sort. If a man loves the wild earth and a wild horse sufficiently, his affection is bound to win ours in the end, no matter how flagrantly he tames the savage animal with his mind and pen. Throughout the book one finds a good-humored, simple, wide-hearted spirit—which is a thing so rare that one always looks forward to meeting it again.”
From Ross Santee in Bookman, January 1927: “Personally I’d like to have seen the pictures given more space. For here are some of the finest drawings Will James has ever made. I think it is one of the finest horse stories ever told. It’s different from any other book that was ever written. For it’s written by a cow boy who knows a cow horse as only a cow boy can. And Will James knows his riggin’.”
And finally, from “Some in Velvet Gowns” by Marjorie Thomas, Peabody Journal of Education, November 1929:
When James' first book appeared it was realized that here was a man who was giving a true picture of the country....He has owned such a horse as Smoky, has worked with cow and horse outfits like the ones he describes, and has himself been a star participant at rodeos....The school of experience was the only one James attended....He says, "With me, my weakness lays towards the horse," and he wishes to make men remember horses in spite of automobiles and airplanes....The story is told in the vernacular of the range--not grammatically correct but decidedly artistic.
...Will James is the real artist in the realm of illustration. Smoky is an actual horse each time he is shown; perhaps he is even more alive when he is in a sketch than when he is put into words....In the Newbery Medal edition of Smoky, both black and white and color illustrations are introduced. The full page plates which show prairie, blue sky above, cowboys, and cow ponies, make one almost catch a whiff of fresh western air.
That’s how this book made me feel. The descriptions and the illustrations really brought to life this horse, and life on the range and the ranch in the early part of the last century. Recommended.
[Also posted on my book blog, Bookin' It.]