The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
I wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. I’m not fond of Westerns and I’ve never been big on horse stories. But I do love me some strong women characters, and this book is full of them. Plus, the story held my interest throughout and the writing is superb. I’ve read two other Molly Gloss books: Wild Life and Jump-Off Creek (both also with strong women characters). This is my favorite.
It is 1918. Martha Lessen rides into (fictional) Elwha County in northeast Oregon intent on breaking horses and living the life of an itinerant cowboy. She is in her early twenties and has left home for reasons we find out later in the story. Her methods for breaking horses are not standard; she eschews any brutality toward the animals. Her talent lies with “gentling” the horses.
She finds a temporary place with George and Louise Bliss, a couple who run a small ranch, and she makes herself at home in their barn. She has very few creature comforts and is elated when Louise loans her a stack of books:
She cleared a shelf in the tack room, crowding the veterinary goods into other boxes and onto other shelves to make room for the books. Their variously colored spines, arranged along the cleared shelf, made a small, distinct change in the room. (Page 36.)
The Blisses grow fond of the tall, shy, tomboyish woman and, after she proves herself to be a skilled horse trainer, introduce her to other ranchers in the valley, securing more work for her.
Martha develops tentative relationships with the people she works for. She is painfully shy and often feels out of place in social situations. But because she spends time every week at various ranches, and because of the nature of community in the early part of the twentieth century, she becomes involved in the lives of the people who hire her.
The writing is simple, the story is simple, the lives straightforward, yet the complexities of the greater world are always in the background – WWI, illness, environmental destruction, racism. Since the story is told by an omniscient narrator sometime in the future, there are glimpses of events that will impact the land and the lives of the characters, such as the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Gloss did an astounding amount of research for this novel. The reader will learn quite a bit about horses, tack, life on a small ranch in a bygone era, the hardships and joys of being a horse whisperer and of being a woman alone in a man's world. Highly recommended. (4.5/5)