You could say that Molly Gloss’s The Hearts of Horses is a powerful coming-of-age story, in which 19-year-old Martha Lessen leaves a troubled home and becomes a respected trainer of horses among the ranchers and homesteaders of Oregon during World War I. You could say that it’s an epic Western, fierce and sweeping in its beauty, honesty, and detail. Or you could sum it up as Jane Kirkpatrick did, saying it’s “truly one of the best books you’ll ever read.”
✅ Best Horse Book
Fantastic book!!! – Hands down one of the best books You have ever read! This book made you laugh, cry, and just over all feel good. This needs to be made into a movie. Will most definitely re read this one!
You could say all of that, and you’d be right, but you’d still be missing the most important reason why you should read this book. The Hearts of Horses is an inspiring and tragic, comforting and wrenching story about love. Love of horses, love of family, and love of one’s homeland. Love so strong that it survives, and is strengthened by, the pain and challenges of life. Love that endures even when what you love most is lost forever. That’s what The Heart of Horses truly is: it’s the kind of book – and Molly Gloss is the kind of writer – that, as one of her characters says, “[her] hand, when it touched my shoulder just [went] right down into my heart to shake it awake.”
A Conversation about The Hearts of Horses with Molly Gloss
What made you decide to write The Hearts of Horses? How long did it take to complete?
I’ve had this book in mind for about fifteen years – since first hearing about girls and young women who were breaking horses in the early decades of the twentieth century – but the idea was just a few sentences in a notebook until I happened to read a description of a “circle ride,” which some old-time horse breakers used to finish their horses. The circle is such a perfect narrative device, and I saw right away how it would knit Martha’s story to the stories of the farmers and ranchers for whom she breaks horses. From that point, the writing itself took around four years.
Did you have any particular goals in mind when you began writing The Hearts of Horses?
My husband died around the time my last novel, Wild Life, was published, and for the next three years I really wasn’t able to write at all. When I began The Hearts of Horses I deliberately set out to write a book that would honor him, sometimes in ways that are visible to anyone who knows me or knew Ed, and sometimes in ways that no one else would guess or know. More than that, I wanted to write a story that I knew he would love. It was that goal that got me through the first difficult months of writing, while I was still struggling to climb back in the saddle, so to speak.
Your main character, Martha Lessen, and many other characters in The Hearts of Horses read the books of their time – from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Zane Grey’s Lone Star Ranger to the essays of Michel de Montaigne and Walt Whitman – throughout their story. Why do you have your characters read in their own book?
This is something I’ve done in virtually all my novels. I often have more than one reason for doing it. The simple one is that I always want my characters to be readers, as I was. And I’m writing about a time when most people were readers (no TV! no internet!)–a time when even fairly uneducated people were at least reading dime novels and the newspaper. And what they read can be a clue to aspects of their personality. Tom Kandel, for example, is a thoughtful man, even philosophical, and he quotes Whitman and Montaigne. Walter Irwin is a college man from the east coast, and not particularly interested in philosophy or the humanities; he’s reading a history of the French monarchy. Louise Bliss reads just about anything she can get her hands on–she’s a smart woman who, in another life, might have gone to college, been a teacher or a librarian or a writer. Martha Lessen, of course, reads westerns and any kind of book about horses. In her case, I also wanted to make an oblique comment about how the novels of Zane Grey and other western writers had created such a powerful cowboy mythology that even people living in the West, and living a ranching life, were influenced by those myths, and tried to live up to them, to the point that it’s really impossible to untangle the western myth from the actual history of the west–the two are too tightly bound with one another.
What kind of research did you do to anchor the book accurately in its historical era?
Several years ago, I had done quite a bit of reading and writing about the twentieth-century homesteading movement and its impact on the western landscape, so it was mostly a matter of refreshing what I knew. My first real research for the book involved reading novels written around 1917 and memoirs about the ranching West during the First World War. I find that novels especially are a good source of period details—and since they’re also written in the syntax and vernacular of the times, they help along my narrative voice. And of course I also did a great deal of research about horse-breaking methods of the times; about World War I and especially its impact on horses; about social conditions in the small towns and on the ranches of the West during the war; and about cancer treatments in the 1910s.
I also spent a couple of weeks on a large working cattle ranch in Idaho, the Harris family ranch, where I got reacquainted with horses after a twenty-year hiatus, and was able to soak up a lot of information and stories about ranching and horse breaking, some of which made it into the novel. Then I went to a couple of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) mustang adoptions and watched Lesley Neuman give demonstrations of how to “start” a wild horse.
Within an hour Lesley can bring a horse that is as wild as a deer—literally climbing the corral rails—to accept a first touch, and then can halter it, lead it, even get it to lift up its feet, the whole thing accomplished through body language. Later, with Lesley coaching me from the corral rails, I was able to have this amazing experience myself, which I wanted not only for research purposes but for pure personal satisfaction.
Was it difficult to achieve the balance between evoking a bygone era and sentimentalizing it?
Like Martha in my novel—and like people everywhere in the world, as a matter of fact—I’m a sucker for the cowboy myth and its romantic images—riding across unfenced prairies, camping under the Milky Way, waking up to find deer grazing with your horses, and so forth. And I grew up reading Zane Grey and the rest of that crowd, novels about lonely heroes trying to give up their guns but in the final scenes always turning to violence as the only way to save the town from the bad guys. Much of my life has been spent exploring that mythology and the way it has shaped and influenced American culture, thinking hard about the paradoxes and ambivalences in the western movement and looking at the dark underside of the myth. In all my work I’m always striving to retell that story, to find a central place in it for women, to retell it as a narrative of community, and to shape it around the realities of the historical West, realities that are sometimes darker but always more complicated and therefore more interesting—and more human—than the stories we usually hear. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I’m always conscious of trying.
Did you make a decision at the outset to include issues with contemporary echoes and implications in The Hearts of Horses, or did those issues become part of the story organically?
When I write about the West, I’m always trying to find a central place for women — women who own their own lives and their own livelihoods — and at the same time, and surely not at odds, I’m always returning again and again to the question of loneliness, of what it is to be loved, or unloved, or to feel so, and the questions of marriage and children, their place and meaning in a woman’s life. These questions seem to me to arise naturally whenever you’re writing about women, whether it’s women today or a hundred years ago.
The war was something I hadn’t realized would resonate so strongly as a current issue. I set the novel in 1917 because I knew that women had taken up a lot of the ranch jobs when the young men went off to fight in Europe; it was largely just a practical consideration. And I expected it would make an interesting backdrop to what was happening on the ranches. But I was stunned, when I dug into the research, to find so many specific contemporary echoes: people calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” for instance, and eyeing suspiciously anybody who spoke German or had a German surname; accusing antiwar protesters of being unpatriotic; and the espionage laws that eroded civil rights during those years. I can’t say I’m happy about all the parallels, but it does give the novel a layer of relevance I hadn’t expected.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to aspiring writers?
Keep writing. Write every day. There is no real way to teach someone how to write well, but you can learn it, and you learn it mostly by the practice of writing every day. There are so many things that can keep us from writing — family responsibilities, financial considerations, all the daily distractions. And when you begin trying to publish, there’s almost always discouragement, rejection, which can go on for a long time. So you have to find a way to fit writing into your life, and then find the diligence, the heart, the will to keep at it. Many of the most promising writers I’ve met in workshops are not the ones who’ve had some later success. It’s the ones who’ve kept writing.
When readers finish The Hearts of Horses, what do you hope they will be feeling?
I hope they’ll read the last lines and wonder what Martha meant by those words—and that they’ll go on thinking about them after they close the book. I hope they’ll feel glad to have met these people, to have come to know them and even to love them, and saddened now to leave them behind. But of course that’s one of the pleasures of a novel, isn’t it? You can always open to the first page again and find those people right there waiting for you.
✅ Best Novel The Jump-Off Creek By Molly Gloss
Jump-Off Creek by Molly Gloss – This is a story of a middle-aged woman who comes alone to the secluded mountain area of northern Oregon near Snake River in 1890’s, alone with a deed for a piece of property and house.. Through stalwart determination she goes about making a life, starting with improving the shack she bought. She meets Tim Whiteaker who becomes a friend, helpful and caring. Other main characters are an Indian named Blue Odell, Tim’s partner; and also gets acquainted with two men who kill wolves and cause trouble, Danny Turnbow and Harley Osgood. Slowly she gets to know the mountain people around her, and makes a woman friend. But she always remains reserved, almost formal in her relationships. The book describes shoot-outs and thievery, horse sense and dog loyalty, acts of hospitality, and generosity—giving the reader a real sense of this hard life in a frontier area.
Molly Gloss is a fourth-generation Oregonian who lives in Portland. Her novel The Jump-Off Creek was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for American Fiction, and a winner of both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Oregon Book Award. The Dazzle of Day was named a New York Times Notable Book and was awarded the PEN Center West Fiction Prize. Wild Life won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and was chosen as the 2002 selection for “If All Seattle Read the Same Book.” In 1996 Molly was a recipient of a Whiting Writers Award.
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