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Wednesday Book Review: 'The Hearts of Horses'

Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe hearts The Hearts of Horses, a new historical fiction novel by Molly Gloss.

From Erin:

When I saw that Molly Gloss (who wrote the wonderful book The Jump-Off Creek, which has more mules than horses in it, but whatever–it’s still fabulous) had written a new book called The Hearts of Horses um, hello?!  I pretty much knew I had to read it because Molly Gloss writes historical fiction with strong female characters AND if the title could be trusted (which sometimes it can’t—as in The Red Pony [boo Steinbeck!]) it was about HORSES!

Then I got worried.  I loved The Jump Off Creek so much.  What if this new book was substandard?  What if Molly Gloss got the horse stuff wrong? I mean, just because I can see she is sitting on a horse in her author’s photo doesn’t really mean anything.  Anybody can sit on a horse and look cute (have you seen the models in Dover’s catalog?  Does anyone believe they actually ride?)  What if The Jump-Off Creek was like a fabulous cross-country round followed by a crummy stadium day with stops and rails (not like I know about that or anything).

Silly me.

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I am here to attest to the greatness of The Hearts of Horses.  Martha Lessen is a horse whisperer (patterned on Lesley Neuman, if the author’s acknowledgements are any clue), who does a circle ride (AKA a circuit, as in OH SNAP!  Maybe that’s why horse show circuits are called circuits!).  She travels between area ranches, gentling and finishing a variety of horses for their owners.  Along the way, we get some fabulous scenes of Martha working with horses.

If I were going to be picky, I might complain about the “explainy” stuff in these scenes, description that is at least partially there to help the uninitiated understand what Martha is doing.  But the detail is written with such a strong voice and with such sympathy and understanding of the different horse personalities that it gives us insight into the way Martha thinks.  Even if you know how to roundpen a horse so he wants to be with you, it’s interesting to read how Martha views the process.  Then too, the details, the history, the snippets of ranch life, the descriptions of the landscape are all so neatly slipped in, the language so unique to the characters and time period, that it is just a kick to read and enjoy the turns of phrase.  For instance:  “Martha saw right away that Alfred Logerwell was the sort of person she would never have a use for.  He made a false show of knowledge, talking as if the horse was a thousand-dollar prize, though it was a plain cayuse of the worst sort, heavy-jowled and long in the pasterns.”

If I were going to be Dressage Queen picky, I would say the novel feels a bit episodic.  The first 100 pages or so are mostly about Martha and the horses she takes on.  I would have been happy to just continue following Martha on her journey.  But as Martha rides the circuit, we get to read vignettes about the other characters she meets.  Sometimes these transitions are a little choppy and abrupt (like my dressage tests!), but by the end of the novel, we’ve met many people in Martha’s community. The downside is that in the process we’ve lost some of Martha’s story and the stories of the horses she trains.  Honestly though, the lives of the other characters are so well-done, so touching, so poignant, so true, that I’m not sure I really want to complain.  Especially since I can pretty much guarantee that at least one of these interludes will make you cry and that when you close the book you will still want to know more about Mrs. Romer and Mrs. Kandel and W.G. Boyd and Irene Thiede and….

Plus, it is these vignettes that make the novel bigger than just horses.  Not that horses aren’t pretty much the single most important thing in life, but sometimes, every now and then, other things intrude.  You know, things like war, and death, and spouses, and children, and bigotry, and cruelty, and love.  All those things are here in this book.  Which means you can feel like a grown up, reading a book about big issues, when you are reading a book about PONIES!!

Molly reading from an in-progress novel, intended to be a companion to The Hearts of Horses, for Ars Poetica at Eastern Oregon University in October 2012.

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