Monday, June 1, 2015

The Quintessential Cowboy from La Belle Province

Quebecois Joseph Ernest Nephthali DuFault's Creates the American Cowboy, Will James

In 1927, Will James won the Newbery Medal for his novel Smokey: The Cow-horse.  The story was based on James's real life, and on James's real horse, a blue roan named Smokey. James worked as a cowboy, ranch hand, and rodeo performer for horse and cattle ranches in the Western Canadian provinces and in the American Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico and California. It was James's third novel, and like all those previous and all those yet to come, it was illustrated by James. A self-taught artist, James always sketched from memory, never from models, horses and Western scenes being his subjects of choice.

Three years later he published his autobiography, Lone Cowboy: My Life Story.  The book was wildly popular, as was James, now something of a celebrity. In Lone Cowboy, James relates the story of his harsh childhood, wandering youth, and checkered career before achieving success as an illustrator and author. James relates how he was born on June 6, 1892, near Great Falls, Montana, to a Texan father and a Californian mother who were on their way to Canada with the intention of establishing their own ranch. After James's birth, they decided to settle in Montana.  His mother died of the flu when Will was one; his father died after being gored by a steer when Will was four. Will was then raised by a Metis trapper named Jean Beaupre, who wandered with the boy through the Northern bush country, often one step ahead of the law. James was often left alone when Bopy, his name for Beaupre, would leave to set his traps. He spent his days sketching, copying pictures from old magazines, and from time to time mingling with the cowboys and ranch hands he encountered in the course of his and Bopy's travels. Bopy, barely literate in French and unable to read English, taught him to read French, and the two conversed only in that language. Bopy loved the boy as his own, and James returned his affection.

When James was about thirteen, Bopy died, drowning in an overflowing river. James searched for weeks for his body, but never found it.  Returning to the one room log cabin where the two had made their most recent home, James packed up his belongings, and hit the road, beginning his career as an itinerant cowboy.

It's a great story, and a complete lie. Except for one thing, the birthdate of June 6, 1892.  That was true. It just wasn't true for Will James.

It was true for Joseph Ernest Nephthali DuFault, born that day to Jean Baptiste and Josephine Dufault in St. Nazaire d'Acton, Quebec. Called Ernest, he was the second child in a family of six, three girls and three boys.  The family was Francophone, and around 1900 they moved to Montreal.  Eventually, the family settled in the suburb of St. Hyacinth, where Ernest's father ran a boarding house patronized by Metis trappers. Ernest started drawing as a young child, filling sketchbook after sketchbook.  He loved listening to the stories the trappers told, of life in the northern bush country. But it was when Buffalo Bill's Wild West show came to town that Ernest discovered his true love, one that would never leave him, and that was for the Old West and horses.

When Ernest was fifteen, he left his family's home, boarding a train for Saskatchewan with ten dollars in his pocket and the dream of becoming a cowboy.

It's at this point that the two accounts, one fictional and one true, intersect and what follows, both in James's autobiography and in reality begin to mesh.

James worked several of the big ranches, and then got himself into some kind of trouble with the law, the details are varied and fuzzy, the Mounties may have been involved, and jail time, but the end result was that Ernest, who, after trying on and discarding a number of different aliases, now went by the name of Will James, made his way over the border and began working at different ranches in the American West.  The days of free range ranching was coming to an end, but James managed to get several years of experience in at the end of the era.

In a display of incredibly poor judgment, James participated in a cattle rustling episode in 1914 that earned him fifteen months of residency with the Nevada Department of Corrections at the State Penitentiary in Carson City. He did a lot of drawing in his spare time.

After he was released, he wandered for several years, working on ranches and forming a rodeo show with several other cowboys.  James knew that his days as a cowboy were numbered.  The years of abuse were taking its toll on his body, and he had spent months in the hospital after being thrown and landing headfirst on a railroad tie by a particularly spirited gelding.

It was time to move on, and now he had someone to help him.  James had married the sister of one of his best friends, Alice Conradt, in 1920.  She was sixteen, he was twenty-eight.  James concentrated on his art, finally succeeding in selling some of his work to magazines, but money was still tight. James often complained to Alice that the so-called Western stories in magazines were riddled by cliches and misinformation, that there was no way the writers could have had any first hand knowledge of the life of a cowboy. Alice encouraged him to write his own stories, and illustrate them, and submit to the magazines himself.  Reluctant at first, he eventually did so, and on his first try sold a story in 1923 to Scribner's.  More sales followed, articles and novels, the Newbery, film adaptations and at one point Will and Alice purchased a large ranch south of Billings called the Rocking R Ranch.

The same name as the ranch in the book, Smokey: The Cow-horse

Book #18: Smokey: The Cow-horse (1926) by Will James, illustrated by Will James. 323 pages.

Smokey is a book about a cowboy and his horse.

The book is divided into three separate sections; each section could read as a book on its own.

The first section covers Smokey's birth and early life in the wild.  It is all about the horse. James describes the individual development - physical and social - of Smokey, and the social hierarchy and interactions of the herd, how they train their young, gather food, interact with other herds, and more.  The reader follows Smokey on his journey from being a new-born colt to four-year-old, the age at which all range geldings are run in (to the ranch) and broke to either saddle or harness.  Enter the cowboy, Clint.

The second section covers Smokey's training at the ranch with the cowboy Clint, and his subsequent role as a cow-horse on the Rocking R Ranch.

Clint recognizes something special about Smokey, a spirit and intelligence of rare combination.  Smokey may belong to the ranch, but Clint realizes that Smokey is his horse, and the two form a special bond.  Ranch life is covered in detail, how horses are broke in, the different roles they play on a ranch, the high esteem cowboys have for the animals, and all the specifics of the jobs that they do.  Clint's one great worry is that he will lose Smokey, a fear that is realized but resolved when one of the owners of the ranch tries to take Smokey as his own.  It doesn't happen, because Smokey will allow no one but Clint to ride him, a fact that the owner learns with painful clarity.

Smokey's reputation as a cow-horse spreads to other ranches, and offers are tendered for his purchase, but all are refused.  Unfortunately, Smokey's reputation brings him to the attention of a certain horse thief, and there begins the third section.

In the third section, Smokey and sixteen other horses are stolen from the winter range by a horse thief, who drives them over a thousand miles to the south, the desert.  The thief wants to break Smokey, and abuses him horribly.  Smokey's heart is now consumed for hatred for the thief, and when the opportunity arises, he kills him.  Smoke is later found by some cowboys, wandering the desert, who notice the blood on his jaw. They capture him with great difficulty, label him an outlaw horse, and eventually Smokey is sold to a rodeo show, where he gains notoriety as The Cougar, the horse that no one can ride, and no one does, for several years.  Eventually, all the heart goes out of Smokey, he's not consumed by hatred anymore, but he's tired, and worn out.  The rode sells him to a man who rents him out by the day to tourists and others to ride. Smokey is so popular that the owner rents him out regardless of Smokey's well-being.  He is overworked, and hurt by the thoughtless behavior of people.  Finally, the man sells him to man who kills horses and makes them chicken feed.  Smokey has a temporary reprieve from death, when a man who drives a cart around town trades his dying horse in for Smokey.  The man's intent is to use Smokey until he's close to death by starvation, and then trade him in to the chicken feed man for another horse, who will kill him.  The man is abusive and whips Smokey, who would surely die but for the intervention of Clint.  Clint gave up being a cowboy years ago, and is down south to purchase cattle for the Rocking R. Ranch. He sees an old horse being abused by its owner, realizes that its Smokey, the horse he'd been looking for for years, and rescues him, first giving the owner a taste of his own medicine.  Smokey doesn't recognize him, and Clint despairs that he ever will, but one day, after weeks of care, Smokey recognizes Clint, and there the book ends.

James wrote of which he knows, and it shows in every line of Smokey: The Cow-horse. The book is written as if a cowboy was doing the telling, using all the vernacular of the profession. Misspellings abound, but the editors made the decision to leave the words as written, and it was a good decision, even though it does make the book a bit slower to slip into for the reader.

Smokey captures a time, place and lifestyle that no longer exists, and was disappearing even as James wrote the book.  This is not a book for younger kids, I would say middle school and up to adult, and here are my reasons.

The vocabulary is specific and extensive. Unless you were raised on a ranch, or are familiar with horses and cattle, a lot of the terms are unfamiliar.  The writing style takes some getting used to, and younger kids would definitely struggle. Finally, the third section involves racial stereotyping common for the time the book was written, and requires a level of discussion beyond the elementary level.

The horse thief is section three is described as a half-breed, part Mexican, with a dark complexion, and referred to though out the rest of the story as the breed. The term is a pejorative, and the stereotypical use of a half-breed character as the bad guy in literature and society as a whole demands intelligent discussion and dedicated thought. Within James's work alone, you could compare his negative depiction of the half-breed horse thief to his positive depiction of the fictional Bopy, a Metis trapper, the French half-white-half Indian man who raised the orphan Will in the fictional account of his childhood. Why the difference?  A discussion of the challenges faced by individuals with parents of different races in current societies should be included, maybe starting with the fact that it wasn't until the 2000 census that individuals even had the option of self-identifying themselves of being more than one race.

I enjoyed Smokey, and that surprised me.  I've never been one for animal stories, was not one of the little girls who read and reread Misty of Chincoteague over and over. I've ridden a horse only once in my life, and it wasn't pretty. But, the writing is droll, and I have always loved books about friendships. This is such a book, and it is a beautiful friendship.

Smokey: The Cow-horse at Wikipedia.

So, why did James lie about his origins?

The best answer anyone can come up with is that he believed that by lying, and claiming a 100% American pedigree, that he would seem more authentic as a cowboy.  Agree or disagree with his reasoning, but that's what he did, and he paid an enormous price for doing so.

As James's fame grew, so did his paranoia over discovery. He took to drinking heavily, a move that cost him his ranch, his wife, and his health.  Other than his family in Quebec, no one, save one individual sworn to secrecy, knew the truth. James died in 1942 in a hospital in Hollywood, California, of cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure.  His will left everything to Ernest DuFault.

It wasn't until the 1965 that a writer named Anthony Amaral, working on a biography of James, dug up a copy of his will, did some investigating, and learned the truth, which he published in his 1967 biography Will James, the Gilt-Edged Cowboy. It took a while for word to get out, even after the book's publication. In the 1980 edition of Something About the Author, Volume 19, James's biography still reads as the fictional version supplied in his autobiography, despite the fact that Amaral's book is listed as additional reading.

What strikes me as sad about the whole affair is that is was so unnecessary. The Old West wasn't just a geographic location, it was an idea, an idea that claims a person's right to an identity of their own choosing, and not an identity tied to an accident of birth.  In the Old West, you decided who you wanted to be, and no one else. What would have been a better example of this than the real story of Joseph Ernest Nephthali DuFault, suburban Quebecois by birth, authentic American cowboy by choice?

I rest my case.

Will James at the University of Nevada-Reno Library

The Will James Society

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