"In 1938, nineteen-year-old ranch hand Bud Frazer sets out for Hollywood. His little sister has been gone a couple of years now, his parents are finding ranch work and comfort for their loss where they can, but for Bud, Echol Creek--where he grew up and first learned to ride--is a place he can no longer call home. So he sets his sights on becoming a stunt rider in the movies and rubbing shoulders with the great screen cowboys of his youth"--Amazon.com.
In her latest,FALLING FROM HORSES, Gloss for the first time casts a male hero. It is 1938, deep in the harshest years of the Great Depression, and nineteen year-old Bud Frazer, weary of the meager rewards of the rural rodeo circuit, boards a bus for Hollywood, hoping to find a job as a stunt rider in the movies. Along the way he meets Lily Shaw, an ambitious young woman from a wealthy background in Seattle, who harbors dreams of being a script writer, and the two form an unlikely but easy friendship.
Raised on a small ranch in south central Oregon, Bud grew up riding horses and herding cattle with his parents, so he knew the harsh realities of ranch life, but as a boy he was, nevertheless, enthralled by the B-westerns of the day, the shoot-em-ups of Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Gene Autry and others. He even named one of his best horses Tony, after Mix’s famous trick pony. But Bud is also fleeing lingering memories of a family tragedy, the details of which are revealed gradually through flashbacks.
The story of Bud’s hardscrabble Hollywood year is told in his own voice, but the backstory, that of his parents’ early years together, employs an omniscient point-of-view, a rather schizophrenic method that works well for Gloss, whose real strength has always been in her characters, people who could easily have stepped out of your own family albums. Because, in a very real sense, Gloss writes “historical” fiction, smoothly and seamlessly inserting characters from her rich imagination into a particular place and time, whether it is Oregon in the twenties or Hollywood in the thirties.
A horsewoman herself, Gloss’s love of horses has often played a role in her fiction. THE JUMP-OFF CREEK opens with the narrator’s journal entry on the purchase of a horse and mule. THE HEARTS OF HORSES focuses on the often-cruel methods for breaking horses, as well as the untold numbers of horses shipped overseas and lost in the Great War. This time Gloss zeroes in on the mistreatment and destruction of horses in the early movie industry, particularly in B-westerns, a popular and profitable subclass of films that proliferated from the twenties into the fifties and were often filmed on shoestring budgets in little more than a week. For a whole generation of kids like me who grew up on these exciting if formulaic oaters, FALLING FROM HORSES will be an eye-opener about how these cheapo films were made, and how the industry turned a blind eye to the numbers of horses injured and killed in the process. Bud’s description of the aftermath of a reenacted Civil War battle, horses and men charging across a field rigged with hidden trip wires, illustrates this all too well -
“Alongside me a horse lunged suddenly to its feet, one of its hind legs dangling, broken ... Shapes rose up through the yellow cloud or fell through it, and I could hear men calling out and horses squealing their pain ... I could still hear the thud of bodies striking the hard dry ground ...”
And, in the aftermath of this violent and deadly staged battle which left dozens of horses dead or maimed beyond saving -
“Around me, three or four men, wranglers, I think, were walking from horse to horse, and every time a gun popped I couldn’t keep my shoulders from jerking. Horses were screaming, men moaning.”
Gloss’s preoccupation with horses and how they are often misused or mistreated was evident too in THE HEARTS OF HORSES, in which she commented about the horses of World War I -
“Of the four million horses sent over to that war, a million died outright, and of the three million still alive when the end was reached, only a handful made it home ... the three million horses who had survived were butchered for meat to feed all the hungry refugees ...”
Both of Gloss’s HORSES books bring to mind another book, one about British horses sent off to the Great War, Rosalind Belben’s poignant and beautifully written novel, OUR HORSES IN EGYPT (2007). A few other fondly remembered books also sprang to mind while I was reading FALLING FROM HORSES - Darryl Ponicsan’s TOM MIX DIED FOR YOUR SINS: A NOVEL BASED ON HIS LIFE (1975), film scholar Roderick McGillis’s delightfully readable critical study, HE WAS SOME KIND OF A MAN: MASCULINITIES IN THE B-WESTERN (2009), and James Horwitz’s nostalgic look at movie cowboy heroes then and now, THEY WENT THATAWAY (1976). Horwitz’s book coined a term about the generations of children who flocked to B-western movie matinees for close to forty years. He called them the “front-row kids.” I was one of those kids in the 1950s and so, I suspect, was Molly Gloss.
It’s been more than fifty years since Gloss and I were front-row kids, excitedly chomping our popcorn and candy as posses and stampeding cattle thundered across the screen above our upturned expectant faces. The magic is long gone, but not completely forgotten. With FALLING FROM HORSES Molly Gloss has created her own fictional front-row kid in Bud Frazer, a boy who grew up worshiping Tom Mix and Tim McCoy, then went to Hollywood hoping to ride in those westerns himself. Bud finds that work, but his story shows us the dark side of the film industry between the wars, a world where both men and animals were disposable parts to be ground up and spat out.
But Bud’s story is also one about growing up, about the meaning of home and family and finding one’s own place in the world.FALLING FROM HORSES is an absorbing and informative story, one that fits so seamlessly into Gloss’s oeuvre that her many fans will feel like they’ve come home after a long absence - to Oregon and the modern West. Highly recommended.
This book is about the year that Bud spent wrangling and stunt riding in Hollywood. It is an accurate and searing portrait of that era in film history. What stands out is the story of the horrific horse abuse that was endemic at that time. But it wouldn’t be Molly Gloss, if it were not also, in great measure, a story about the language of horses and the culture of people who love them, work with them, respect them, and understand their language. So the book contains this strong yin and yang between these two themes. Each plays off against each other and heightens the effect. As the pieces fall together in the end, we find the book morphing into an emotionally satisfying story of disillusionment, personal growth, lifelong friendships, and the difficult journey toward self-forgiveness.
For those of you who are fans of Molly Gloss’ bestselling last novel, “Heart of Horses,” you’ll be happy to learn that Bud is the son of that book’s main character, Martha Lassen. This new book is definitely a stand-alone novel, but for Gloss’ fans, it is gratifying to have a continuation that deals with this same captivating family…a family many of us have come to love as if they were our own.
“Falling From Horses,” is narrated like a memoir from the point of view of Bud as an old man looking back on the year that changed everything. Because it’s written like a memoir, much of the story is told rather than shown. This literary technique adds necessary emotional distance for the reader from some of the more appalling sections concerning animal abuse. It blunts the horror of what occurred and makes it easier for the reader to learn about it without having to relive it through fiction. Writing it as a memoir also allowed the author to move about in time so that readers get a chance to find out what eventually happened to many of the key secondary characters who were part of Bud’s life during this short period. Perhaps above all else, this novel celebrates the delicate intersection of lives within close-knit communities.
“Falling From Horses,” is told subtly, leisurely, and with a loving attention to the interior and emotional life of its characters.
This book gets five stars for its clean exquisite literary prose, formidable character development, and thorough mastery of time and place. Very reluctantly, however, I feel the need to knock off a star on the overall ranking because the author allowed the theme of horse abuse to overshadow the main uplifting themes of self-forgiveness and friendships. It was a delicate balance and the negative theme was just too strong.
Gloss chose an troubling but historically important subject. I applaud her for having the courage to tackle this topic. This is a profoundly moving novel. I hope it gathers the type of readers it deserves.
This story is set in the 1930's, and follows a 19-year-old ranch kid out to make his fortune as a Hollywood rider. Along the way he befriends a young woman who is determined to find her way as a Hollywood screenwriter. The story illustrates the abuse that horses were subjected to, making motion pictures in that era. It is a thought-provoking story, but may be upsetting for some readers.
Disclosure: I received a pre-release copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
On the bus ride to Hollywood, Bud meets a young woman, Lily Shaw, who dreams of writing for the movies, and the two form a friendship that follows them and shapes the rest of their lives.
As always, Gloss uses a strong sense of place and depends on simple language to spell out difficult concepts – sometimes of the harsh life of hardscrabble ranch families in Oregon’s high desert country, sometimes the cruelties inherent in the treatment of animals in the film industry of the era. Never sentimental about her animal characters, Gloss nevertheless understands and communicates the ways in which living and working with animals shapes humans as well.
The memoir-like sections, told in Bud’s voice, read so much like nonfiction that the reader frequently must stop and remember that they, like the third-person narratives of Bud’s earlier life on a series of small ranches, are at heart fictional.
Towards the end of the book, Gloss uses Bud’s voice to get at the heart of the matter – “[T]he hard knot that is our myth of the cowboy West; the violence on the movie screen and behind it and the way the humanity has been hollowed out of our movie heroes and villains, the poverty, isolation, and precariousness of ranch work, the dignity and joy of it, and the necessary cruelty.”
While not the best of Gloss’s works, it’s still rewarding on a number of levels, and gives a strong voice to what is essentially Americana.
Bud is a young man who has been raised around horses all his life. He decides to go to Hollywood and become a cowboy star. Of course, once he gets there he finds there is no market for his acting skills but he does land a job wrangling horses on the movie sets and eventually becomes a stunt rider and extra. On the bus to Hollywood he meets and becomes good friends with Lilly Shaw, who is going to Hollywood to write movie scripts. They quickly discover that this business is very hard on both horses and women. The stunts were performed with trip wires and very little tricks were used. If a horse needed to go off a cliff, then off it went. Both the horses and the young men who rode them were disposable. As for women, well, they were treated as even more disposable than horses. Winding through the main story of these two characters trying to make it in a tough business were flashbacks to the disappearance and death of Bud’s sister.
The story, told in Bud’s straightforward style could be quite rambling and repetitive at times, due to Bud’s failing memory, but this quirk made the book seem all the more realistic. The authors sense of place and time felt very authentic and I liked the fact that Bud and Lilly only had a friendship, there was no romance. Although I found Falling From Horses was a little slow moving, the story was fascinating and kept my interest.