Jeff Smith had a lot of worldbuilding to do in his first book, “Out From Boneville,” and was very successful in crafting a complex world with compelling characters. Despite some minor pacing issues, “Out From Boneville” was a thoroughly entertaining initial chapter in Smith’s “Bone” saga, one which not only introduced readers to Smith’s environment and world but also gave a hint of the epic narrative awaiting us in the rest of the book.
Our second chapter, “The Great Cow Race,” furthers Smith’s story. How much more does it reveal about Smith’s larger plot for the saga as a whole? How does this chapter shape and define our characters and endear them us to? Does it do either of those things?
Let’s peer in and take a look.
The Great Cow Race
Near the end of “Out From Boneville,” following the Rat Creature attack on her farm, Gran’ma Ben expresses the need for haste in getting to town for the upcoming Spring Fair and Great Cow Race, an event she participates in (and wins) with regularity. Thorn’s reply isn’t exactly understanding. “Can you believe she still wants to go to th’ Fair?” she asks Fone Bone in alarm.
Inevitably, they go to the Fair.
The “Cow Race” plot that takes up much of this book is comprised of several smaller, interwoven subplots—Phoney roping Smiley into a con artist trick of sorts to fix the face; Fone Bone’s attempts of wooing Thorn and the threat of a rival man; Gran’ma Ben’s training for the race; Thorn’s dreams stirring inside her; and even minor development on the part of the two main Rat Creature antagonists. Smith throws a lot of smaller pieces into the mix, creating a casserole of sorts.
To his credit, Smith continues to do a fantastic job weaving these small pieces together. Each subplot is balanced nicely, and the parts even flow from one to the other. Set against the backdrop of the Fair and the Race, the subplots are even unified, in a sense, or at least brought under the same banner. Smith’s pacing issues seem nonexistent here; any troubles he may have encountered by speeding up some storylines in Book 1 to reunite our three Bone cousins evaporate now that everyone is together. The Fair and the Race create a common environment. No longer are we jumping between Fone Bone’s wandering and Phoney’s milling about, then leaping to the farm, then jumping over to Barrelhaven. Everyone’s together here, making the transition from subplot to subplot smoother.
As I mentioned, it even means subplots grow out from each other in a rather natural fashion. It’s because of the Cow Race that Phoney hatches a scheme that sees Smiley disguise himself as a “Mystery Cow” that may possibly even beat Gran’ma Ben; springing out from Phoney’s plot, we see Gran’ma Ben undergoing some conflict as she trains for the Race, encountering people who now doubt her, unlike years past; as Gran’ma Ben trains, Fone Bone and Thorn are left all by their lonesome, leading to a focus on Fone Bone’s attempts at winning Thorn’s heart.
I’m not into romance storylines. I’ve never been huge in that department. At this stage, while I can’t say I loath the Thorn/Fone Bone (can I ship them? Thone? Fhorn?) storyline, I also can’t say I feel particularly endeared to it. If anything, the relationship has allowed Thorn to grow some as a character. There’s an absolutely great moment where Fone Bone gets into a bit of a tiff with a stall worker named Tom, a strapping shirtless dude who clearly finds Thorn attractive. Normally, in this kind of scenario, you’d see this sort of rivalry boil over into blistering hate between the two male members, leaving the girl in the crossfire. Not so here. Instead, as things get a little heated between Fone Bone and Tom, Thorn stands up for Fone Bone and drags him away. But then, she turns on Fone Bone, calling out his own rudeness.
Wonderfully, this is Smith’s first real hint at character growth on the part of Thorn. She becomes a strong character as the story progresses, but this is the first moment where we see her in a role other than the fair-haired maiden who lives with her grandma on a farm in the woods. Clearly, however, she’s not ignorant or foolish, at least in this instance. She’s able to speak her mind and draw the line between what is bravery and what is idiocy.
I’ll also add that I got a tad bit irritated at Fone Bone (who, it seems, is never just called “Fone,” unlike when his cousins are simply called “Phoney” or “Smiley”) during this chapter. “Lovesick puppy” is a somewhat unfortunate character arc for him to get labeled with. At heart, Fone Bone comes across as typically good-natured, though not as goofy as Smiley, but resolved. When Phoney complains about chores, Fone Bone shuts him down and reminds him they’re helping Gran’ma Ben and Thorn; when hunting honey for Thorn, he climbs an incredibly tall tree and fights off some giant bees for a honeycomb. The guy’s got good intentions, and you get the feeling that as much as his efforts are driven by his crush on Thorn, they’re not his only motivation. Whether or not he liked Thorn, Fone Bone would be there to help them. If, then, this change in attitude is Smith’s way of showing how Fone Bone’s feelings go a tad overboard and make him think and act impulsively and foolishly, then bravo on Smith’s part. If he legitimately wants me to feel irritated with his main character, good for him. It worked. I just hope this phase won’t last forever and we’ll start to see Fone Bone become more defined by his character rather than his emotions.
The same is also true for Phoney and, to an incredibly tiny extent, Smiley. Phoney is the kind of guy who never learns from his mistakes and, to borrow a bit of modern lingo, makes you wanna facepalm every time something comes out of his mouth. Watching him develop his get-rich-quick scheme is certainly entertaining and watching barman Lucius Down tear it asunder is equally as pleasing. Smiley, like last time, simply provides comic relief as he bumbles his way through Phoney’s plot. I’m just a wee bit irritated at him because, at this point, his characterization feels a bit hollow. If I recall correctly, he will grow throughout the book, and that’s no denying his amusement as comic relief here. The “Mystery Cow” scheme, I’ll admit, did make me grate my teeth a little at Phoney’s idiocy. Again, if that was Smith’s intentions, awesome. He did it again. Much like Fone Bone, naturally, I want to see Phoney develop. Part of me is just concerned he’ll get trapped in a “do something stupid, end up caught” type of revolving door. By that point, making Phoney do selfish things will have gotten old and clearly a way for Smith to just give him something to do. We’re not there yet, but I’m slightly concerned.
Smith’s larger narrative also gives me slight concern by the way it stalls a little here. I think, if you read this story bit by bit, you wouldn’t notice it quite as much. Reading it as one solid chunk of text as I’m doing with this complete collection makes it easier to notice pieces of the story where things slow down. Other than Thorn’s dreams, you don’t really get any indication of the bigger machinations going on in the background. And while Thorn’s dreams are a nice nod to the past and a look into the main “quest” the comic will later dive into, the dream itself doesn’t give you much to go on. It will require heavy exposition later on to better understand. This is the part I recall specifically being confused about when I read “Bone” previously, and while I think I can chalk that confusion up to youthful ignorance, I also believe it’s easier to see precisely why I was perplexed.
Now, I understand that, given the story’s length, you can’t expect every installment to provide new information or push the plot along significantly. But I feel rather like Thorn at the ending of “Out From Boneville,” questioning why our heroes take the time to partake in the Fair and the Race when, evidently, there are bigger pieces moving around. The burn is a slow one and, from I remember about further installments, an ultimately satisfying one. It’ll just take perhaps a bit longer than necessary to get there.
Which isn’t to say “The Great Cow Race” lacks any kind of punch whatsoever. As previously discussed, Thorn and Fone Bone’s characterization is great, and many of the individual strands are undoubtedly rewarding in their own right. The Cow Race itself is a highly entertaining scene, filled with beautifully stylized sequences that really made me feel the actions happening. At one point, Fone Bone is evading some Rat Creatures that crossed him prior to the Race. He dashes madly away, and you can feel every turn he takes, every movement around the trees, and every hop over gaps as the Rat Creatures careen after him. The action is vibrant, moving deftly from one moment to the next. Smith adds a hefty dose of visual comedy here as well. Rat Creatures get stuck, smash into trees, trip over themselves. Much of it feels like something you’d find in a children’s book or a Three Stooges skit. The amount of amusing artistry, I believe, only enhances the serious underpinnings of the story. Smith’s book is very much one that will make you smile, even at the goofiest of gags, because you know he isn’t injecting “dumb” or “simple” humor because he’s lazy. The jokes and pratfalls are very intentional, meaning even the humor is taken as seriously as the characters and their individual arcs.
As a standalone “book” within the saga, “The Great Cow Race” works fantastically. Most of the book feels akin to an extended story arc you’d find within a “Peanuts” comic, where Charles Schulz explored the same narrative over the course of multiple strips. Scenes jump from character to character, telling bits and pieces of a whole miniaturized story. As a section in the larger structure of “Bone,” this second chapter doesn’t work as seamlessly as it could. Smith’s still getting his feet wet, introducing us to the world he’s created. I get it. That fact unfortunately means that the “necessity” factor of this book isn’t quite as integral as other chapters.