A few years ago I was looking, as we readers usually are, for a good book. I had just finished reading a string of literary novels, the kind in which you are so busy admiring the writing that you lose track of the plot (if there is one), and I was jonesing to lose myself in a story. But when my friend recommended THE HEARTS OF HORSES to me, I was reluctant at first to pick it up.
Horse stories put me in mind of a certain period of my girlhood, when I wandered around the library too old for the magic and adventure stories I used to love but not quite sure what came next. For a while, the only options were stories about girls embarking on their first romances or stories about girls and their horses. I liked riding horses, but I didn’t want to read about them. Luckily, I found Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen and Rona Jaffe—in that order.
But THE HEARTS OF HORSES hooked me right away. Maybe that was because the main character was named Martha, but I like to think it was the magic of its first sentence: “In those days, even before the war had swept up all the young men from the ranches, there were girls who came through the country breaking horses.”
The story that follows is what you might call a quiet story, but I could not put it down. In the winter of 1917, 19-year-old Martha Lessen—tall and “solid as a man” but shy and kind—rides her fire-scarred mare into eastern Oregon, looking for work breaking horses. She finds herself in a community of ranchers, and teaches them lessons in how to “gentle” a horse without physical abuse. Her methods are unconventional, but they work. Meanwhile, we also learn in a most satisfying way all the desires and secrets of the members of this little community.
Journalist Janet Malcolm once wrote, “Good stories have a quality of authorlessness. The better they are, the more authorless they seem… They give a sense of being out there, like facts.” The ability of an author to take herself out of the story while still writing beautifully crafted sentences that pull the plot and characters forward is a rare talent. Molly Gloss, the author of THE HEARTS OF HORSES, has this talent in spades. As a reader, it feels like you are simply floating down the current of her imagination. It’s storytelling, with the emphasis on characters and what they do, rather than story telling, with the emphasis on voice. Both can be satisfying to read in different ways.
A novel can break through the fourth wall, to borrow a theater metaphor, when it stops being words you are reading and starts being a place you’re imagining. This, by necessity, happens without your awareness. It’s only when you close the book and return to the “real” world that you realize how fully you’ve been somewhere else. And that is the gift of THE HEARTS OF HORSES.