Books about horses join a stable of well-loved titles foaled by Black Beauty in 1877. Over the years, Anna Sewell's only novel, which she called "the autobiography of a horse," has sold more than 50 million copies, and more recent titles, such as Nicholas Evans's "The Horse Whisperer," Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" and Jane Smiley's "Horse Heaven," have kept readers stampeding to the bookstore.
I don't know if Molly Gloss's lovely new novel will spur such intense interest, but I hope so. The Hearts of Horses is set in northeastern Oregon in 1917, the twilight of the Old West when that way of life was already legendary. The story begins, as such legends must, with a mysterious figure riding into view on a badly scarred mare. But Gloss immediately begins to transform these worn conventions. This stranger is 19-year-old Martha Lessen, the first girl anyone in these parts "had seen advertising herself as a broncobuster." Since most of the young men who worked these farms have headed off to the war in Europe, Martha is "looking for horses that needed breaking out." She sets aside her natural bashfulness long enough to tell a skeptical rancher, "I can gentle most anything that has four feet and a tail."
That's a fair description of this author's ability, too. Although a strong feminist impulse runs through the story, it's been expertly "gentled." Martha has no sense that she's part of any movement toward gender equality, but she looks like Calamity Jane, and Gloss notes that "in her childhood daydreams she was always a boy." Even now, she "liked it better when the men seemed to forget she was a girl." And so she has left her abusive father "to live a footloose cowboy life and see the places she'd read about in Western romances." She asks only for space in a barn, sleeping on a bed she sewed from a wool blanket and an old fur rug. With a candle to read a few pages of Black Beauty before falling off to sleep, she's got all she needs.
Gloss helps us understand just how radical this young woman's method is at a time when animals were beaten and tortured -- sometimes to death -- in the name of taming them. "Plenty of men thought nothing of being rough with horses," she writes. "A horse had to have his spirit entirely broken was what a lot of men thought, had to be beaten into abject submission." By that violent standard, what Martha does with a bucking chestnut seems like doing nothing at all: singing almost inaudibly for hours, brushing the horse with her hands, walking slowly around a field. But the proof is in her remarkable results, derived from a deep sensitivity to these giant animals. Before long, she's signed on with seven clients in a 15-mile circuit, riding and training horses from one farm to the next each day.
That work plan also provides the novel's structure, which allows Gloss to move through these interconnected families, developing their separate dramas as she watches Martha grow into a cherished member of the community. The ranch families start to care for and depend on her; she carries news and mail from one farm to the next. We gradually sink into their hopes and fears just as Martha does, with startling, intimate glimpses into the loneliness some of these people endure. The fever of patriotism is already warping the landscape and shattering old friendships. Among the novel's most harrowing moments are scenes involving a young father dying of cancer at a time when the only available treatment was stoic endurance. Any one of these quiet but intense chapters is worth the price of the book.
The plot doesn't move so much as accrete, in the way that Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig manage to do in their novels, full of the wisdom of well-lived ordinary lives. Yes, the risk of dullness haunts stories like these, but when it works -- the subtle rhythm of one scene after another, with touches of warmth and humor and compassion -- there's something deeply satisfying about it.
Ever so slowly, Martha notices the attentions of a plainspoken farmhand named Henry, who works for two old spinsters, sisters who are "unconcerned by convention, riding cross-saddle along with their cowboys... exactly the sort of women Martha admired." Henry shares Martha's profound empathy with horses, but they're far less articulate with each other. Their muted romance is among the book's chief pleasures, a reminder of a time (was it possible?) when adults expressed their passion in long, silent walks, splitting a piece of pie and, finally, after a few months -- maybe -- holding hands.
That sounds corny, but there isn't a false move in this poignant novel, which demonstrates as much insight into the hearts of men and women as into the hearts of horses. Books like this are easy to overlook, but there's someone on your holiday list who will feel blessed by Gloss's gentle story.