In the winter of 1917, a big-boned young woman shows up at George Bliss's doorstep. She's looking for a job breaking horses, and he hires her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but strong-willed girl with a serious knowledge of horses. So begins the irresistible tale of nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, a female horse whisperer trying to make a go of it in a man's world. It was thought that the only way to break a horse was to buck the wild out of it, and broken ribs and tough falls just went with the job. But over several long, hard winter months, many of the townsfolk in this remote county of eastern Oregon witness Martha's way of talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair--and getting miraculous, almost immediate results--and she thereby earns a place of respect in the community. Along the way, Martha helps a family save their horses when their wagon slides into a ravine. She gentles a horse for a dying man--a last gift to his young son. She clashes with a hired hand who is abusing horses in unspeakable ways. Soon, despite her best efforts to remain aloof and detached, she comes to feel enveloped by a sense of community and family that she's never had before. With the elegant sweetness of Plainsong and a pitch-perfect sense of western life reminiscent of Annie Dillard, The Hearts of Horses is a remarkable story about how people and animals make connections and touch each other's lives in the most unexpected and profound ways.
I must say, I wasn't too sure about this book as I started. The third-person omniscient narrator knows all, referring to events far in the future and beyond the scope of the book, even going so far far as to mention when some folks die; that jolted me out of the story more than once. Martha is the main character, but the story follows a varied cast of very real people. Actually, I would say this is one of the finest books I've read as far as creating genuine characters. Everyone and everything about this book grew on me as I read. As the blurbs at the front said, the title may say it' s about the hearts of horses but it's really about the hearts of humans, too. Martha is slow and awkward in her conversations as the book begins, relating to horses better than people. Her maturity is beautiful to behold.
There was one chapter in this book that almost drove me to sobs. I've read a lot of books. Some make me tear up. But this? Oh my gosh. I read at the end that the author's husband died and she stopped writing for three years until she started on this book. I think that single chapter channels much of her grief, and it's absolutely devastating.
If you love horses, if you love studies of humanity, if you're curious about an in-depth look at the American rural home front during World War I... read this book. I hope it touches you as it did me.
This is such a gentle, lovely, calm, PEACEFUL tale set in the midst of a world at war that it seems almost fairy-tale surreal at times, but it's NOT. It is disturbingly real, the kind of real you'd like to walk into and get to know the people, to be their friend, to laugh with them and comfort them - THAT kind of real. I guess it's pretty obvious by now that Gloss's book has made me nearly inarticulate with admiration. Here's a typical sample that rendered me speechless; the book's title comes from this passage in which Martha and Henry talk about the horses shipped overseas to the front -
"... about the terrible plight of the horses over there - how they died on the transport ships from fear and trampling; how they pined with homesickness and consequently took cold or pneumonia and died at the remount depots before they ever got to the front; how they were often starved and thirsty to the point of eating harness or chewing their stablemate's blankets; how as many horses were invalided by war nerves as were killed in battle - their hearts and minds not able, any more than the men's, to bear the airplane bombs and grenades, falling fuses, the shrieks of wounded men and animals."
The Hearts of Horses has, I think, a kind of quiet Quaker sensibility, a plain people quality that cannot fail to touch your heart. I'm so glad I found it. What a book!
This title came from a line (a seam?) of reading and recommendations that has included "The God of Animals," "Split Estate," "Plainsong," "The Whistling Season," and, less obviously, "The Echo Maker" and "The Translator."
Martha is a wonderful character, shy and damaged by her abusive childhood, but sure of her own self and the way she wants to be in the world. This book reminded me of Caprice by the poet George Bowering. That story is more tongue-in-cheek; a school marm turned vigilante sets out to avenge her brother’s death. She saddles up and chases the perpetrators across the west, circa 1890’s. And then that reminds me of one of my favorite femi-westerns of all time, True Grit, the story of a young girl who sets on out on horseback to find her father. She pairs up with the rapscallion Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the movie. But I digress. The point is that there are far too few of these stories of the wild west that depict the heroism of women.
There are some hard scenes in this book, including one where a wife watches helplessly as her husband suffers a terrible death from cancer. And there are the classic themes of the Western - the land as an Eden that is slowly being corrupted by the encroachment of man and the yearning for an earlier, more innocent world. I sensed that the author had done her research and had accurately portrayed early 20th cenutry life in Oregon. But finally I can hardly offer higher praise than my mother-in-law did when she finished it. She hugged it to her breast, saying, “now that was a good book.”
There are a slew of memorable characters--particularly strong female characters--and stories that impinge on Martha's and the novel manages to encompass issues like gender and race and the environment--but never by being preachy or feeling like it takes a point of view--just by telling the story of this community Martha rides into. There's a sweet romance here too and this stands out as a strong coming of age story.
But above all, there are the horses--certainly a story that would appeal to animal lovers and particularly those fond of horses. If I have any criticism, its that the ending, while not falling flat, just somehow doesn't rise to something that matches the rest of the book in quality--but then that quality is very high.
A slow moving tale that will enchant horse aficionados of all ages. Although I am not particularly interested in horses, I did enjoy learning about the different ways to train them in a humane way. Martha Lessen is a charmingly atypical heroine!
The narrative is very detailed, and I pictured myself inside the book as I read.
I love reading about pioneer life, and farm life. If you do too, they you will enjoy this book.
The writing is luminous. The pace is slow, measured, and deliberate. The starkness of life in Oregon's ranching country in the teens is brought into sharp focus by the steady, unflinching prose. There's a breathtaking passage where a small family confronts the father's untimely and agonizing death that undid me completely.
The central character is utterly believable, completely human and fully-fleshed. The minor characters are precisely drawn and as real as my own neighbors. The ending is neat but not tidy.
Over the book we not only read Martha's story, but we become involved with some of the local families' stories as well. She is befriended by Henry, who works for the Woodruff sisters, two elderly spinsters who bucked convention and took over their father's ranch for him when he could no longer handle it.
I liked this book much better than I had expected to, and found myself caught up in the story.
Well, it's been proven: you can still write a novel with an omniscient narrator. I don't pretend that setting it in the historical past (the U.S. homefront during WWI) doesn't help, but it can obviously still be done, and done well.
Apart from settling that debate, The Hearts of Horses is an enjoyable read, more page-turning than its quiet, even-tempered tone would initially give you cause to guess. It may prompt you to chuckle in company, and, when pressed, explain lamely, "Just horses being horses." It gives you a sense of these horses, these people, and even this country, even though they are invented from hoof to hillock. It's a beautiful trip you'll be glad to have taken.
Nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen leaves the unhappy home she grew up in and heads for a remote area in eastern Oregon hoping to find work breaking horses. George Bliss, a well known and liked rancher, gives her a chance and is well pleased with the results. When he recommends her to other farmers she gets enough work to last the winter. Shy and lonely, Martha goes about her work with a determination and skill that brings her respect, even from those that questioned her methods. This is not just about Martha though, it's a novel giving insight into how people lived in this remote and unfriendly but beautiful place. A true novel of the West.