Sunday, May 19, 2013

From My Library

I love to read.  Since I was a small child, it’s been one of my passions.  There’s nothing that  quite compares to getting lost in a great book.  My friend and twin cities author Brian Freeman is the king of the detective genre and writes page-turning mysteries that contain more twists and turns than a May Township back road.

I can always count on Brian, my longtime stalwart, Stephen King, and a few select others for an excellent read.  But discovering an extraordinary new writer is exhilarating: like finding an agate in a gravel pile or a wild flower in a patch of weeds. A few weeks back a friend passed along a soft cover that she had received from her book club.  At first glance, she didn’t think much of the storyline so she asked if I wanted it.  Shirley’s loss was my tremendous gain.

The book is  The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss and it’s set in eastern Oregon in 1917.  World War I had just started and most of the young men were overseas so women were doing jobs that had traditionally been done by men.  Enter our heroine.  19 year-old Martha Lessen is what we now know as a horse whisperer.  A tall, quiet and dignified young woman from an abusive background she has an amazing gift: through love and kindness she can communicate with and train even the most damaged horses.   Leaving home with her three equines—one of which had been badly burned in a barn fire—Martha winds up in the small town of Shelby, where farmers George and Louise Bliss convince her to stay the winter after she domesticates their broncos with soft words and sweet songs instead of lariats and hobbles. News of this stalwart young woman’s success soon spreads and in no time she is traveling from farm to farm in Elwha County, or “riding the circuit” as it’s called, breaking horses.

This is the tale of Martha and her effect on animals but it’s also about the people she meets and the lives she changes.  This novel is an incredible slice of life from a bygone age that will engage and charm as it draws you in.  By book’s end you will truly care about these plain, hard-working people and understand what life was like for our  forebears.

The book had special significance for me.  Martha was the same age in time as my paternal grandmother who died in the great 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people.  I’d grown up hearing stories that Grandma Bridget was a real pioneer for her day. I’d like to believe  she had a bit of Martha in her. 

As a professional writer, I’m fussy about the tone of books.  For a period piece, I could
Author Molly Gloss
not have been more impressed with author Gloss’ spare yet elegant  prose. She perfectly captures the difficulties and simple joys of  life before the modern era. 

The book is also a reminder of what the world was like for animals in general around the turn of the 20th century. Much is written today about certain species facing extinction but, speaking generally,  animals are far better off today than they were 100 years ago. Gloss tells of how ranchers killed everything in their quest to protect their livestock. Horses were sacrificed as “living bait’ to draw wolves and other predators in so they could be shot. The novel also touches on the plight of horses who were shipped overseas to participate in World War I.  As illustrated in the film War Horse millions of equines were treated horribly.  The book goes on to reveal that after honorably serving their country, most were butchered to feed starving Europeans.  It would have been easy to paint people as villains for their disgraceful treatment of animals but instead Gloss takes the more difficult route.  With a couple of exceptions, she shows us that most folks—overworked, underfed and exhausted—just didn’t know any better. 

The human race has far to go but we have greatly evolved with our thinking about the animal world.  Today there are laws and special interest groups that protect all living things.  My hope is that in another 100 years we will have travelled leaps and bounds in both our understanding of and appreciation for God’s creatures.  I firmly believe that it’s thoughtful and intelligent books like The Hearts of Horses that will help us reach that lofty ideal.  

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