IN the cookie-cutter western, a stranger rides into town, fixes something in need of fixing and leaves, preferably on horseback, preferably into the sunset. It's not a stretch to see this yearning for a stranger to mend things as a longing for God or something, someone, to save us. In Molly Gloss' new novel, the stranger is Martha Lessen, 5-foot-11, just shy of 20, who appears on a sorrel mare at George and Louise Bliss' ranch. The year is 1917. The horse is named Dolly. Martha is a bronco buster.
With so many men away at war, young women have taken up farm and ranch work. "Those girls could break horses as well as any man but they had their own ways of doing it, not such a bucking Wild West show," we are told. "They went about it so quiet and deliberate, children would get tired of watching and go off to do something else. . . . [I]t wasn't like in the moving pictures or the gunslinger novels, the female always in peril. If they were in peril it wasn't from outlaws or crooked sheriffs, it was from the usual things that can happen with ranch work -- breaking bones, freezing your fingers off. . . ."
"The Hearts of Horses," so simply written, is narrated in the voice of an ancestor or a village elder who refers often to "those days" and "back then" to place us somewhere between that time and this. There is the sense of nostalgia, perhaps more precisely regret, so often present in stories set in the West, as if we had something precious and we broke it or failed to care for it. Against this lost landscape, families huddle together, isolated with their problems. A Bliss son is fighting in France; the husband and father of another family has cancer (it's only the second case the local doctor has ever seen); another husband/father has a debilitating drinking problem; on another ranch, a cruel hired man beats the animals. The only homestead seemingly without troubles belongs to two spinster sisters who are good riders and manage nicely with the help of ranch hand Henry Frazer.
Martha, living in the Bliss family barn, makes a "circle ride" each day to break horses at the neighboring ranches. At each, in her quiet way, she provides some comfort to the people living there. Like the strange visitor in Jean Giono's novel "Joy of Man's Desiring," Martha, with her deep understanding of horses, is a kind of savior. Martha may feel like a "fish wearing clothes" in social situations, but she does fall in love, which is all the more thrilling for her reticence.
Gloss' intimacy with the landscape and ranch life is conveyed beautifully in particulars and small observations. ("The weather turned colder, the ground frozen so hard it rang under the horses' feet.") She also has the skilled novelist's ability to show entire lives intertwined, however loosely, in a community. With terrible authority, she sums up the passage of time and generations: "It occurred to her now," Martha thinks later in life, "that the West of her dreams was not -- never could be -- the testing ground for atomic bombs." "You know, honey," she tells her granddaughter, "I guess we brought about the end of our cowboy dreams ourselves."