Horse books for kids and young adults are fairly common. I was a huge horse book fan as a kid, some of my favorites being Black Beauty, The Black Stallion series, and Smoky the Cow Horse. I had dreams of becoming a kind, caring, gentle horsewoman, and of having that wonderful bond with my horse that is described in these books. The reality is, though, that horses are a lot of money, and a lot of work, and if you’re not going to spend a lot of time with them, you’re better off not having one. So at least thus far in my life, no horse.
When I came across The Hearts of Horses a few months ago at a local bookstore, I thought that perhaps I had come across a horse book for adults. I’ve read one other book by Molly Gloss, The Jump-Off Creek, which I really enjoyed. This book is similar to The Jump-Off Creek in that it has a strong female character, one interested in ‘cowboying’, and that it takes place in Oregon.
The year is 1917, and while World War I has been raging in Europe for awhile, this is the first winter of American involvement in the war. Nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen rides into a remote county in eastern Oregon, hoping to find work as a ‘broncobuster’. With many of the county’s young men off fighting the war, there aren’t any male broncobusters around, and there are some horses that need training. So Martha is hired by George Bliss to tame a couple of his horses. He is so impressed with her quick success, and by her gentle methods, which do not involve breaking a horse’s spirit or beating them, that he recommends her to the neighbors in this small community. Martha soon finds herself with enough horses to tame that she has work for the winter. After the initial ‘breaking’, getting a horse gentle enough to be ridden, they need daily training to refine their skills, so she sets up a daily circle ride, where she rides from one ranch to another, switching horses at each stop, giving them the experience that they need to become good, reliable, useful horses.
This circle ride provides glimpses into the homes and lives of the various horse owners. There are Reuben and Dorothy Romer, a family with an alcoholic husband, a wife who chops wood for the school to support the family, and their three children. There is Walter Irwin, a nice enough man on his own, who has hired the cruel and abusive Alfred Lagerwell to manage his ranch. Ruth and Tom Kandel have bought a young horse for their son, who is on the brink of thirteen. It is to be Tom’s last gift to his son, as he is diagnosed with cancer that is beyond surgery or hope. The Thiede’s are a young German couple, experiencing the distrust of their community in a time of war against their father land. They are loyal to the United States, but people trust them less and less as the war rages on. Then there are the Woodruff sisters, spinsters who are not interested in settling down into becoming housewives, just the kind of women that Martha admires and aspires to be. The Woodruff sisters have a hired hand, Henry Frazer, who understands Martha more than she knows…or at least, he would like to.
Through the circle ride, the story moves through the families on her route and their separate dramas. Martha becomes more than a temporary worker, she becomes a member of the community, cared for and depended upon by her neighbors. Their hopes and fears permeate the story with its heart, their losses are harrowing and ring true.
Martha flared up. “I don’t know either, but if you let him go on working here he’ll go on hurting the horses until he kills one, which I won’t let happen.” Her voice shook from deep feeling, and she cleared her throat a couple of times to try to hide it. She put her hands inside her coat pockets and fisted them.
Walter stared at her, taken aback, startled to see tears standing briefly in her eyes. He hardly knew the girl, but on the evidence of her dress and the masculine work she’d chosen for herself he had formed an opinion of her as hard and leathery, not very much different from the ranch men who were his neighbors, men he believed to be without an ounce of soft feeling or the capacity for sentiment. Martha went on looking at him heatedly, with her chin squared and her fists working inside her coat. Her silence and her stubborn stare made him feel put upon, provoked into taking some kind of action. He turned from her again and looked out at the mountain range without seeing it, and in a moment found the gumption to put himself on the right side of the question.
It is quiet moments like this that fill the pages of The Hearts of Horses. Quiet moments that separately are wonderful little stories in and of themselves. Together, they make a wonderful book, one that didn’t strike a false note, and the glimpse into a time long gone was interesting both for that time behind us, and for the mirrors to our lives today.