"In those days," writes Portland-based novelist Molly Gloss, "plenty of men thought nothing of being rough with horses. A horse had to have a his spirit entirely broken was what a lot of men thought, had to be beaten into abject submission." This was the "winter of 1917 and 1918" when 19-year-old Martha Lessen, horse whisperer and broncobuster, rides into rural Elwha County in eastern Oregon looking for work.
So begins a quiet tale of Martha's "gentling" horses ("I can gentle most anything that has four feet and a tail," she says) and in turn being "gentled" into community life, especially by George and Louise Bliss, with whom she signs on. This is the time when young men are going off to war and ranchers are short of help.
"The Hearts of Horses" ($13.95 in paperback from Mariner Books) is an engrossing story, full of poignant reminders of our contemporary world (in those days, sauerkraut was called "freedom cabbage") and expressing a feminist sensibility in the strength and dignity of its female characters, even as women's suffrage would become a reality not many years hence.
Gloss will be signing copies Wednesday, April 22 at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books in Chico. Her work has won the James Tiptree Award, appeared in the New York Times' "Notable Book" list, and was chosen a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Martha is a loner, dressed as if ready for a rodeo (one observer thinks she looks like Calamity Jane), tall, "big boned," with a wide smile and air of innocence. Her childhood dream is of freedom, galloping "bareback across fenceless prairies through grass as high as the horse's belly," a life of independence, "intimate with animals, intimate with the earth."
As winter surrenders to spring, the reader is drawn slowly, slowly into what happens to the dream, into the sometimes tragic lives of Martha's far-flung neighbors, into the human and animal cost of war, the scourges of cancer, ptomaine poisoning and influenza, and "the hard truth that loving someone meant living every moment with the knowledge he might die--die in a horrible way--and leave you alone."
Yet in the midst of pain this is a story of hope, one of "taming" the heart--but not domesticating it.