What’s that saying–don’t judge a book by its cover? Well, even top-notch book critics like Horse Nation’s own Erin McCabe sometimes forget.
I would like to start off by admitting I judged Bruce Machart’s book The Wake of Forgiveness by its cover. If it weren’t for the cover which screams HORSE BOOK!! and the fact that I always start my search for books in the Mc section, I never would have brought this book home. Especially since I went to the bookstore aiming to purchase an entirely different book (soon to be reviewed here) which wasn’t in stock. Since I am naturally suspicious of technological advances (I do love horses, after all) and that includes having an aversion to actually using my Kindle, I hit the shelves in desperation.
In what appears to be a string of happy coincidences (including being a Western at heart, historical fiction, and written in the present tense), The Wake of Forgiveness is peripherally about horses and land, two of my favorite subjects (I blame the Mc in me). In fact, Karel, our protagonist, helps his father win more land by successfully winning horse races against the local landbaron—a past time which seems both quaint and unfathomable. And also concrete in a way that derivatives aren’t.
In any case, some of the most beautiful passages in this book are about those very same races, such as this description: “The horse is all speed and momentum, a rolling and muscular extension of Karel himself, and the steam from the animal’s breath breaks over him like windswept fog.” This is the kind of sentence I like to imagine someone would write about me as I gallop my horse in a drenching rain. I mean, isn’t it just so poetic? (as long as you don’t think about the mud or the sweaty saddle pad or the rain-spotted tack that will need oiling).
If I’d been paying more attention to the cover, I would have realized sooner that this is a serious, dark book, a book that is literature with a capitol L. As one of my high school students noticed many years ago, literature might be important and beautiful, but it isn’t usually very happy. That’s true of this book too. The long lush sentences remind me of a field so full of tall grass that the horses sometimes just stop eating and stand there chewing, surveying the stems they’ve tasted and the ones still waiting to be eaten. Which is to say that although this novel is filled with interesting turns of events, parceled out bit by bit as the book moves between past and present, it should really be read slowly, to better savor each sentence, each strand of grass, as it were.
But be forewarned: the tallest grass is often the most bitter. And so, I must tell you, despite the lyrical descriptions of horses and riding, land and farming, the book isn’t really about horses or land. The book is really about what happens when a father is so wounded by the death of his wife in childbirth that he creates an empty, loveless life for his motherless sons. Any smartypants Horse Girl can see that pretty much leads to male characters who are unlikable much of the time– they drink, they’re unfaithful, they’re angry and violent and mean. But they are interesting. And herein lies the appeal of bad boys, I suppose. My advice? Stick with project ponies. Or books. They’re so much simpler.
Top photo: Horse-Books-Pony-Stories.com.
Editor’s Note: HN does not condone reading while riding bareback backwards without a bridle or helmet.