Conditional Recommendation: In Oregon, Nineteen-year-old Martha is hired to break horses at the start of WWI and slowly is acquainted with the homestead families and becomes a part of the community.
Genre: Historical Fiction
I picked this book up because the summary put me in mind of Heartland, books I’d read as a kid and a TV show I’ve recently enjoyed. Don’t let the cover and title fool you—this is a character-driven book less about the hearts of horses and more about the hearts of the people that make up the homestead families in Elwha County in Oregon. The author doesn’t romanticize the time period or the homesteaders and she doesn’t anthropomorphize the horses. It’s matter-of-fact storytelling with gorgeous writing that puts you in mind of sitting before a fire with an old-timer sharing what they remember as they remember it.
In the winter of 1917, a big-boned young woman shows up at George Bliss’s doorstep. She’s looking for a job breaking horses, and he hires her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but determined girl with a serious knowledge of horses. So begins the irresistible tale of nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, a female horse whisperer trying to make a go of it in a man’s world. It was thought that the only way to break a horse was to buck the wild out of him, and broken ribs and tough falls just went with the job. But when, over the course of several long, hard winter months, many of the townsfolk in this remote county of eastern Oregon witness Martha talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair—and getting miraculous, almost immediate results—she earns a place of respect in the community. Along the way, Martha helps a family save their horses when their wagon slides into a ravine. She gentles a horse for a dying man—a last gift to his young son. She clashes with a hired hand who is abusing horses in unspeakable ways. Soon, despite her best efforts to remain aloof and detached, she comes to feel enveloped by a sense of community and family that she’s never had before.
When I finished the book I thought, “There is no plot.” The storytelling is so completely concerned with the characters, how they live and how they cope in certain situations, that plot and action take a backseat. It’s a social commentary with a warm, contemplative omniscient narrator who drops you in and out of the heads of all sorts of characters in the community. Martha Lessen and her horse gentling is simply the anchor we always come back to amidst all the other characters and the interwoven details of the time period and region.
I loved reading the sentences and the author’s descriptions of people and emotions was insightful and beautiful. The scenes and the people felt so solid, so real. Again, picture sitting before a fire listening to stories of days gone by. The pacing is steady and deliberate through the entire book, calm and observant; it would almost be boring if the characters weren’t so interesting and the writing such a joy to read. Molly Gloss is skilled at using words well!
Watch out for unexpected humor in her descriptions. There were several passages that made me laugh out loud. Here’s one: “Louise in fact was not a woman with a deep dread of fires, but fire was more common in those days than it is now, and people who had been burned out had a healthy wish to keep it from happening again.” I’m going to start calling some of my anxieties “healthy wishes” from now on.
Everyday life. Love. Death and loss. Hardships of homesteading out west and staying home while friends and family go off to fight in the war. Realistic people with realistic problems. No matter what time of history we live in, people are the same. We have the same hearts, struggle with similar things, and all try to make it through life as best we can.
The scenes and the people seem so real that once you’ve left the book it seems to your mind that you actually observed it all in real life just yesterday. The mood and the story lingers in a nostalgic kind of way.
There’s this brief section where Louise Bliss is contemplating what the new young preacher at the Federated Protestant church had said. In the context of Job’s misfortunes and the war going on, the preacher explained that God “has a way of evening things out in the long run—giving luck and hardship in fairly equal measure over the whole of a person’s life—or a nation’s life—though you might have to look hard to see it.” Louise goes on to consider that the first 50 years of her life have been good and generally free of trials so she must be “due—overdue—for God to even things out.”
This is hogwash and not biblically supported at all. It’s essentially Christianized karma. Even Job’s life doesn’t support it because he was greatly blessed with success, wealth, and a good life before his suffering and then he was doubly blessed afterwards. That’s not exactly “even” or “fairly equal measure.”
In the beginning, Martha imagines being single for the rest of her life so that she can always work outdoors with horses and coming from a big family, she’s seen what kind of life her mother had after having six kids in six years and she didn’t want it. Plus, she sees herself as “manish” because of how she looks and what she does. Romance is not in any way a theme of this book. It’s just a fact of life and portrayed as such.
At the end of the book, there’s descriptions of some heated making out, a desire to “take her down on the ground,” and how this character was introduced to condoms and how he might acquire some. Nothing happens. I’m trying not to spoil anything, but you can read this short section starting on page 270 to judge for yourself if you’re concerned.
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