It’s too bad about the title and cover. This is a lovely work of literary historical fiction, which happens to feature a protagonist who trains horses, but which neither anthropomorphizes nor is sentimental about them. Really it’s a story about the hearts of humans: how they live together and love one another. It’s the first winter of America’s involvement in WWI, and the shy but tough 19-year-old Martha Lessen arrives in a rural Oregon county looking for work. Which she finds gentling horses for eight local families; this allows the author to dip into many lives, with a strong sense of compassion and understanding of people and relationships.
So Martha is the protagonist, and hers is a fairly standard though well-told story of finding community and love after a rough childhood. But she’s also the catalyst for other characters’ stories, which occupy just as much of our time. There’s the “German” couple ostracized by many of their neighbors (they are German in that his family immigrated from there, and she married him). There’s the woman who splits wood to feed her three young children and alcoholic husband. There’s the educated farmer dying of cancer – which at the time had no real treatment – and the stalwart wife who must confront the reality of his illness and death every day.
This is a very well-written book, told in a measured, contemplative way; when there is excitement, the book is more interested in how the characters manage their situations and how those situations affect them than in action for its own sake. The omniscient narrator drops into the heads of various characters in a natural way, and also fills us in on local history and on the times. Writing 90 years later during another overseas war, the author seems particularly interested in the culture of wartime America.
Overall, this is a wise, warm and observant character-driven novel with social commentary. Be warned that it takes awhile to get going; I wasn’t hooked until somewhere between pages 50 and 75. But it was well worth the investment, and I enjoyed it as much as Gloss’s stand-out epistolary novel, Wild Life, though they are very different books. I look forward to reading more of her work soon.