The Book Report: Fighting Swamp Witches and Decapitation in “My Donkey”


The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. The next event will be Tuesday, June 11th, with special guests Micaela Blei, Chelsea Hodson, and Ashleigh Lambert, at the Gallery at LPR, 158 Bleecker Street, NYC.

Here, Ted Travelstead writes about My Donkey.

My Donkey, a “novel for children” was written by H. Robert Tassel and published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1932. It is the story of John, a boy, and his donkey, Caleb. When John’s parents perish at the hands of bandits, he is left on his own, with only his donkey Caleb to keep him company. The pair hit the road and travel from Kansas to southern California in an attempt to find John’s next of kin, an uncle by the name of Simmons. Along the way they meet a cast of colorful characters, and are exposed to both kindness and cruelty. A bond develops between boy and beast that will live on into adulthood for a child who’s forced to grow up too quickly.

On the surface this might sound like a fairly original take on a familiar plotline seen in coming-of-age stories for children and adolescents, but it very quickly becomes apparent that this book is inappropriate for children, even by today’s standards, and might put off more than a few older readers as well. For a “children’s novel” the level of violence in the opening scene is shocking. John’s mother and father are ambushed by bandits on a return trip from town after selling a draft horse. The bandits are brothers from, in the words of the author, “a family of no-goods, that live down amongst the reeds.” They beat John’s father to death with pike pole (a pole that’s used to guide a river raft), and decapitate John’s mother while trying to strangle her with a wire garrote. All this takes place within the first three pages of the book. John finds his mother’s head when he goes in search of his parents, who are late returning from town. He leaps from the porch of their farmhouse with his hoop and stick, a popular children’s toy in the early 1900s, and begins lazily hooping along the dirt road to meet up with his tardy parents. Less than a mile from his home he comes upon the carnage, and, “as he screamed in horror at his mother’s dead-eyed gaze, his metal hoop, and childhood with it, fell to the ground, forgotten, never to be seen again.” After following a blood trail to a clump of scrub he comes upon the family wagon pulled by the young donkey Caleb. Who has been left unhurt, but is covered with his owner’s blood, and quivering with fright.

Knowing that he is vulnerable and will surely be victimized himself now that his parents are gone, or even worse, be put into an orphanage, John decides to flee the family property in Kansas and make his way west and try to find the one blood relative he has heard tale of, an uncle, by the name of Simmons, who is supposed to live in the southern part of California. A pivotal moment comes when John is forced to choose between carrying his mother’s head in a satchel, or keeping company with the family donkey. The donkey, Caleb, can sense the presence of John’s mother’s head in the satchel, and puts up a violent fight to escape the smell of death, and the horrible reminder of the slaughter he recently witnessed. John can’t understand the donkey’s willfulness and spares no expense with the lash, but desperate instinct propels the donkey to fight with all his might to get away from the boy’s mother’s head. Realizing that the donkey will not cooperate as long as he is in possession of his mother’s head, John must decide rather quickly whose company he’d rather keep. He tearfully buries his mother’s head on the crest of a hill overlooking her favorite field of wildflowers and heads out of town on his donkey.

The boy and the donkey hit the road together, and despite their initial distrust of one another, they slowly begin to realize that they need each other to survive. As their journey, and the story, progresses it becomes evident that they depend on each other, not only for survival, but for companionship and camaraderie as well. Two passages in particular illustrate this growing bond between them. The first takes place in Colorado, where, while trying to gather some fruit, they accidentally disturb a hornet’s nest.

The hornets clouded around Caleb and he screamed in pain and fright. John stood motionless with fear and surprise at the quick onset of the hornet attack. One accidental brush of their nest had brought this on and to think he’d had his mind set on fresh peaches just moments ago! He felt a burning sting on his neck and leapt into the air from the pain. If one sting felt this terrible, he couldn’t imagine the agony his donkey friend was going through. He couldn’t stand it for a moment longer. He held his saddle blanket over the campfire’s embers until it was ablaze and then brought it down in one clean motion upon Caleb’s back. The impact smothered the blanket fire, and trapped the swarm of hornets in a burning, smoke-filled pocket of death. They rained to the ground around the wounded donkey, a useless storm of dead predators. Caleb’s eyes were wild with fright, but in them was gratitude too, for he knew this latest torment had ended. The boy ran to the river, and soon had the beast’s bite-riddled back coated in a layer of cool, soothing mud.

The next passage takes place while they’re trying to navigate a marsh at night, and they come across the dreaded “swamp witch.”

John backed away from the hissing thing. Was it woman? In the dark he really couldn’t tell. The phosphorous of the marsh cast a faint green glow in the pitch dark, but other than that, there wasn’t much to go by. The moon was half covered in clouds and didn’t offer much assistance by way of light. He’d heard tale of the swamp witch in school, but had always tried to keep it in the back of his mind, never thinking too much about her for fear of casting forth his bladder into his bedclothes in the dead of night. But here it was in their path, and he and Caleb had to traverse the marsh tonight, or travel miles in reverse and risk exhaustion in the noon sun. “What are you?” he said. His voice quavering with fear despite his attempt to sound commanding. The hissing crone raised up like a cobra about to strike and shrieked, “YOU SHALL NOT PAS—.” CRACK! Caleb’s front hoof struck her squarely in the temple. Before John realized what was happening the donkey was standing calmly beside him and the swamp witch was dead on the ground at their feet. He looked amazed from the donkey to the shriveled lifeless shape on the ground. “Well, I guess there IS more than one way to skin a cat,” he chuckled, and him and Caleb moved along, wading carefully through the marsh until they reached the other side.

As boy and beast help each other through various predicaments they began to rely on each other more and more. There are many depictions of graphic violence within the book’s pages, but the reader also experiences many moments of tenderness, and some genuinely humorous moments as well. Although, I must admit, because of the odd nature of this “novel for children” it’s not always easy to tell if these moments were meant to be humorous.

Here’s a passage that takes place at a brothel in Nevada, in which the perspective has changed to Caleb’s so we view John through the eyes of the beast:

Caleb wandered around back of the ramshackle hut and nudged his head through the only window emitting a faint light. His snout moved the burlap curtains aside to reveal the boy, John, standing without clothes at the foot of a lopsided canopy bed. In the light of two dim candles Caleb could make out a large shape under the canopy and as his equine eyes focused more clearly he saw it was a female human of great size and girth, also without clothes. Her large bosom quivered as she extended her arm towards the boy and Caleb let out a panicked bray. John and the large, strange woman both looked towards the window in surprise, and after a moment the hefty woman let out a laugh twice as loud and grating as the donkey’s bray. Still cackling, she said, “Aye, boy, now ya got a partner fer yer shrimpin’ ay?!” and laughed again long and loud. John ran from the room in terror.

As the pair cross the California border they realize they are being tracked by the brothers that murdered John’s parents, which leads to a dramatic faceoff between the two parties. John and Caleb trick the murderous siblings into drinking some poisoned liquor, which temporarily incapacitates them, giving John the time to tie them up. All this happens in the last thirty pages of the book. By this time it’s quite easy for the reader to anthropomorphize Caleb, so it is not much a stretch to believe that a donkey could have helped a boy hatch a plan for revenge involving tainted liquor, or that he could be so taken aback at John’s frightening anger once the plan has been hatched. As evidenced in the following passage:

From behind the tree, the donkey saw John standing in silhouette in front of an orange ball of setting sun. The two bad men were tied together at the boy’s feet, and he held a large stone above his head with both hands. The donkey had never seen the boy like this. A shudder ran through his haunches as he heard the boy growl, “you killed my parents, youuu kiilllled myyy parrrents.” The men moaned from their place on the ground, the poisoned liquor they’d been tricked into drinking had incapacitated them, but they were beginning to rouse. Caleb moved around the tree to get a better look. Now that the sun was below the horizon he could see the boy’s face in the dim light, and the two clean lines of tears that cut through the grime. There was a dark spot on the crotch of his trousers where he had wet himself in anger. The donkey huffed and whinnied lightly, then moved back behind the tree. He watched the small boulder as it hung in the air, seeming to float there reflecting the last remaining orange light of dusk. The bad men were stirring now and starting to cry out in fear as they realized the predicament they were in. The boy locked eyes with the donkey and saw its fear and in that moment he came back to his senses, his anger setting back into him like sun on the horizon. He sighed, and let the stone drop gently from his hands. Unfortunately he did not calculate its destination and they both watched in horror as it crushed the skull of one half of the murderous pair below him.

The book ends rather quickly from here, with the pair eventually locating John’s Uncle Simmons hiding in a large straw basket.

Written by an author who to this day remains a mystery, as there is no record of any other works from him (or any account of his life beyond the very brief bio on the book jacket), My Donkey suggest that it’s the journey that promotes growth, not the destination. Not a new lesson, but certainly a valuable one. Even today.

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