In the first winter of the Great War Martha Lessen rode into Elwha County. Dolly, the mare she rode, was badly scarred but a sensible type. She also had a couple of remounts following after. Martha was looking for work. She’d left her family to try and find a job breaking horses. But she didn’t want to do it the cowboy way, busting them through bronco work. She was more interested in teaching them what was expected of them, showing them there wasn’t anything to be scared of.
I’d never heard of Molly Gloss before Margo Lanagan mentioned this book1 in an interview. And if Margo Lanagan recommends a book and it features horses in the title then it is almost certain I’m going to take an interest.
And if you too are a horse story lover then you should pick this one up. Martha is a real horse lover. She understands them and wants the best for them. She tends to judge people by how they treat their animals. But she is also practical and grounded in her time and place. She knows that many people don’t think of horses the same way she does, who see nothing wrong in breaking a horse’s spirit to get it to obey. And she knows that some horses will never make it as a reliable and safe mount. But she’ll try her best keep the ones in her care from being abused.
Martha is a great character. She knows horses, but she isn’t too confident around people. Apart from wanting to break-in horses the reason she left home was to escape her abusive father and her mother, who has been worn out from childbearing. Six children in six years. Martha doesn’t want any part of that!
And for readers who don’t care about the horse-y aspect, well, don’t worry. There is still plenty to enjoy in this book. Because it is really the story of a small community on the cusp of huge change. Elwha County is a fictional place in Oregon, but the story told is a true one in many respects, World War One has just started and some men have already left to sign up. More will leave as the war worsens and America becomes more and more involved. It is also, in a way, the real end of the “Old West”. Martha may long for days when there were no fences and gates to stop and open, when wild horses streamed across the plains, but already the car has made its appearance, and many farmers are considering replacing at least some horses with tractors and automated ploughs. Soon the damage done by intensive wheat farming, to support the war effort, will strip away all the fertility from the soil and leave only dust and poverty.
The hearts of horses is a wonderfully told book, with so many little stories in it, all combining to give a flavour of what life was like in Oregon back then. I really enjoyed it and will certainly read more by Gloss in the future.
I’m always envious of people who write very vividly and specifically about place ↩