The Bookworm: Animal lovers, burro in; life's highway

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature and Rediscover My Own”

  • By Margaret Winslow
  • c. 2018, New World Library
  • $16.95, $25.50 Canada; 277 pages

A dog just wouldn’t do. Cats make you achoo! You don’t want a bird, turtle, goldfish, and nothing that hisses. Nope, the pet you want is much more unique, and in the new book “Smart Ass” by Margaret Winslow, you’ll need to be stubborn about it.

“Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature and Rediscover My Own” by Margaret Winslow

When she was just three years old, Margaret Winslow saw a burro in a Christmas catalog, and for many Christmases afterward, she begged her parents for the pet. Alas, she got a stuffed donkey one year, and it sufficed.

Fast-forward a few decades and Winslow was a professor, a geologist, and was married to an oceanographer who was often gone for months at a time. She was thinking about “the next phase of [her] life,” when she recalled seeing donkeys and children while in the Dominican Republic. They reminded her of her childhood desire.

Winslow loaded up on donkey-related publications and started researching.

The first time she saw Caleb, she was shocked: he was pure white and “huge” with long, furry ears and a cacophonic bray that carried far. He was a jester and a pester, charming and goofy but with that well-known stubborn streak firmly in place.

Winslow was in love. She paid for Caleb and a saddle and took both to an upstate New York stable that specialized in training donkeys. She left him there, dreaming of long rides in idyllic meadows astride her “trail buddy.”

Margaret Winslow, author of "Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature and Rediscover My Own," with Caleb.

At mid-winter break, she returned to the stable and prepared to learn how to ride her donkey. That was when Caleb showed Winslow just how headstrong he could be: in the ring, he was disruptive at best, bruising at worst but her stubbornness was stronger than his. She found another stable, closer to home, and dug in for more lessons.  

Three years and thousands of dollars later, Winslow’s patience had thinned. Caleb had learned few commands, was still balky, and had taken to nipping and kicking. He was capable of seriously hurting someone; he’d done it to Winslow.

More:The Bookworm: Holiday books for children, teens ... even Grandma

Caleb needed a new home – but who would take a shonky donkey?

One of two things is going to happen when you read “Smart Ass.”  Either you’re going to love it, or you’re going to hate it. There is no in-between.

You’ll fall into the first category if you’ve ever had a pet that exasperates you to the point of screaming, making you love the animal even more. That never-give-up feeling of love despite runs fiercely through this book, and author Margaret Winslow’s stories are easy commiseration. The ending here will give you heart. 

But beware. Here’s the second camp, and it’ll make you cringe: Winslow writes about the use of crops, whips, sharp spurs, and a bit that she acknowledges hurt her donkey. That, too, runs throughout the book and while they’re common, and maybe even needed, it doesn’t make them easy to read about. Hee-naw.

Decide what you can handle before you proceed on this delightful-but-wince-worthy tale of stubborn love. Animal advocates can pass on “Smart Ass.”  Animal lovers, burro in.

More:The Bookworm: Advice from Eleanor Roosevelt; digging oneself into trouble

“Two Roads”

  • By Joseph Bruchac
  • c. 2018, Dial
  • $16.99, $22.99 Canada; 320 pages

You don’t have to like it. That’s the way it is with parental decisions. You may not agree with mom and dad and you can argue all you want. You don’t have to like it but, as in “Two Roads” by Joseph Bruchac, the path they set for you is in your best interests.

"Two Roads" by Joseph Bruchac.

There was a certain code of ethics that “knights of the road” followed.

“I take care of you, you take care of me” was the one etched most firmly in Cal Black’s heart. Twelve-year-old Cal and his Pop followed that rule faithfully, after having lost their farm to the bank and Cal ’s mother to illness. It was 1932, they were riding the rails, and they didn’t have much but they had one another.

For Cal, that was key. Pop taught him everything there was to know: how to act, how to be respectful, how to find a safe place to sleep, how to track man or dinner. And in the middle of Kansas, Pop taught Cal something about himself.

Pop was a veteran of World War I, and Cal knew that his father’s service was a big point of pride. Cal had heard battle-stories, and they gave him nightmares but what he’d never known until that day on a boxcar heading north, was that Pop wasn’t the white man he’d led Cal to believe.

Pop was a “full-blood” Creek Indian, and that made Cal a half-blood.

Cal wasn’t sure what to think. There was no shame in being an Indian; while growing up, Pop told him stories of Indian bravery and wisdom and Cal knew history. But now it was his history and he’d have to adjust to thinking of himself in a whole new way.

There was little time for it, though. Pop needed to join his fellow soldiers on a Bonus Army march to Washington, to get President Hoover to release much-needed money. To do this, he had to leave Cal behind.

An Oklahoma “Indian School,” Pop figured, was the perfect place.

But would a half-blood, English-speaking boy ever fit in there?

In life, there are times when you pick a path, and there are times when a path is chosen for you. Same with books, and “Two Roads” is the way to go.

Based gently on actual historical events and a few real people, this is one of those books that can yank a kid back nearly a hundred years in time, to a reality they might only know from schoolbooks. To do that, author Joseph Bruchac lends no romance to anything in his book: people die in “Two Roads,” racism is harsh, poverty happens, and folks go hungry. That won’t scare kids, so much as it’ll put Depression-era life into a perspective they can understand while they’re reading an absolutely fine coming-of-age story.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading over the shoulder of your 10-to-14-year-old because this is a book neither of you should miss. You don’t have to like “Two Roads” … but you will.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.