Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wednesday, July 9, 2014: Maximum Shelf: Painted Horses

Grove Atlantic: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Grove Atlantic: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Grove Atlantic: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Grove Atlantic: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Painted Horses

by Malcolm Brooks

This debut novel by Malcolm Brooks is a paean to the untamed majesty of his home state, Montana, that rings like the neigh of a horse running free in a canyon. With a startlingly clear view into a past when the American West was still wild, Brooks transports readers into a breathtaking, ruthless landscape. In the sagebrush and dust, an aristocratic young woman and an unrefined loner surrender not only to their passion for each other, but for the lost secrets of a wilderness under siege.

Aspiring archeologist Catherine Lemay faces the same challenges as any 1950s American woman with serious career goals. Her parents and fiancé don't understand why she would rather dig in the dirt than choose china patterns. Finding an employer who will even consider hiring a woman, let alone take one seriously, is next to impossible. When the Smithsonian Institution's River Basin Surveys department offers Catherine a position surveying a Montana canyon prior to the building of a hydroelectric dam, she takes her chances on the project, even though the dam contractor can't be bothered to remember her name. Allegedly hired because of her previous experience working on a dig in advance of construction, Catherine quickly realizes no one expects her to find anything in the presumably barren expanses of Montana, and no one wants her to. Her survey is a mere formality to placate the Crow Nation, who call the canyon sacred ground. Determined, stubborn Catherine takes the foregone conclusion of her failure as motivation to look harder. To help in her quest, she hires a headstrong young Crow woman named Miriam, as clever as Catherine but raised far from Catherine's privileged New England world in a place where "Farmers are their own carpenters. Their own mechanics, too." Through Miriam, whose eldest relative remembers the time of Custer, Catherine learns stories of the Crow and brushes with their culture at a celebration where she hears "a song of glory and mourning and revenge, with drums bashing like the blows of a club and voices like women hysterical with loss, other voices like souls wailing back, across a chasm that couldn't be crossed. She thought if hell were real and Custer had gone there, he doubtless heard something like this now, and always, and forever." However, her greatest revelation comes from the mysterious drifter John H, a horseman as comfortable in the Montana wilderness as the herds he tracks.

John H has his own reason for taking an interest in the canyon: a herd of wild horses, not mixed-blood mustangs, but pure-blooded Barbs whose lineage has remained unspoiled through the centuries. "These horses had crossed northern Africa with the Berbers, carried warring Moors into Spain. Into the New World with Cortez, to put the fear of pale gods into the Aztec. Eaten by the Apache. Adopted by the Comanche. John H had heard the stories. He had not seen their kind in all his years on the sage." From his youngest days, John has demonstrated an innate understanding of equine behavior and the ability to quickly earn an untamed horse's trust. A loner since his teen years, he rode the rails into Montana, where he trailed sheep with his Basque mentor, became a mustang hunter, and eventually found himself drafted into World War II. On foreign soil, John comes to truly understand the ancient history of man and horse, that "The grace of the horse caught the eye of the hunter, and the eye of the hunter saw its destiny.... To conquer the world with art." Now he lives in solitude, painting and dreaming horses, trying to wall out the world. His growing connection with Catherine gives him the rare chance to share his vision of the landscape he calls home, to describe the Montana autumn when "The smallest wind and the entire mountain lights up. The flicker of all of those leaves, shimmering at once. Thousands of leaves, all one color. Hundreds of different trees. All one tree."

Brooks's narrative sprawls across the New World and the Old, from the open frontier to a rarely seen sliver of World War II and to a lost Roman temple. History and progress jostle against one another in a constant battle for the future. Catherine began her tutelage in the struggle between preservation and progress while studying piano in London. Instead of attending music classes, she found herself drawn to an archeological dig uncovering the remains of the Roman city of Londinium, buried 20 feet below the modern city. The crew had to work quickly to excavate and document their findings before construction destroyed the site. In Montana, she finds that the Crow people have fought for years to stop their culture from becoming an artifact in the march toward modern convenience. John H already watched a way of life die when fences ended the open range, and his insight into the inner lives of horses speaks to a connection between nature and humanity that had already begun to vanish by the mid-20th century. Brooks offers contrasts between past and future, morals and convention, intermingled with a breathless love for one of America's last great wildernesses. All of the adventure and romance of the classic western novel awaits readers here, made even more vibrant by a tinge of bittersweet nostalgia. Glowing with spirit, Brooks's debut will entrance anyone who has ever felt the call of the West. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Grove Press, $26, hardcover, 9780802121646, August 5, 2014

Grove Atlantic: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Malcolm Brooks: Drawn to Montana

Photo: Jeremy Lurgio

Malcolm Brooks was raised in the rural foothills of the California Sierras, and grew up around Gold Rush and Native American artifacts. A carpenter by trade, he has lived in Montana for most of two decades. His writing has appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal, Outside, Sports Afield and Montana Quarterly, among others. We recently talked to Brooks about his home state, horses and the dream of going West.

How does it feel to have your first novel coming out?

It's been such a long time frame that it's hard to wrap my head around it as reality. And my daily life is unchanged as yet. I'm a carpenter and remodel contractor, just still doing that every day. It's odd to still be pulling people's toilets every day [laughs] and doing this type of work that is not in the slightest bit indicative of having a novel coming out.

The last six months have been so surreal to me because I'm actually getting the reaction of people who've not been involved in the production of the book. It's really bizarre to see how something I came up with and lived with solo for a long time winds up having this whole other positive secondary life outside of my own sphere.

What does Montana mean to you?

I was born outside Philadelphia, in the southern part of New Jersey, and my parents were rootless, comparatively speaking. We went to Southern California when I was 10 and ultimately wound up in Northern California. I was fascinated by the west from a young age, so when my parents decided to move, even as a 10-year-old I had this romanticized idea that we were following the trail west. We wound up not in this landscape of cowboy movies which I was expecting, but in Orange County, California.

I had these dreams of doing the real mythical western thing, and Montana was representative of that. All the magazine articles in Field and Stream, the locations they were talking about were Montana, Idaho, Wyoming. Then, when I was 14, my eighth-grade English teacher gave me the novel Lonesome Dove, which had just come out. She recognized what my sensibilities were, so she asked my parents if it was okay to give me the book. I grew up in kind of wacky religious circumstances, but by some minor miracle, my parents said, sure, give him whatever you want to give him. I read the book and it utterly changed my life, the springboard moment for me, and the place they're trailing the cattle herd to in the novel is Montana. Later I started to read Jim Harrison and A River Runs Through It, and it was Montana, Montana, Montana. I moved here when I was 24, and I've never left.

Even though I do live in Montana, in the western part of the state, I'm writing about the eastern part. It doesn't quite get the play that the western part of the state does, but it's a part of Montana that I love.

Horses and the human/equine relationship figure enormously in your story, and John H's knowledge of equine behavior is impressively detailed. Did you have to research the topic, or are you an old hand around a horse?

A little bit of both. I was always interested in horses, and wherever we happened to live I always managed to, for lack of a better word, wrangle a way to have access to horses. Northern California is kind of the cradle of endurance riding and is real Arabian horse country. I was lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to end up on the backs of some crazy Arabian horses that were pretty hot-blooded. You had to really have your wits about you on them, but I learned to ride fairly well on those horses, and even now I exercise my neighbor's horses. I'm grateful I've always managed to have horses in my life without having to be the person who writes the check for them.

Beyond that, I know a guy named Randy Rieman fairly well and he's a pretty significant--well, I try not to use the term "horse whisperer" if I can avoid it, but he's what people regard as someone who has a really intuitive understanding of horses. I don't know if you know who the Dorrance brothers were, but they were some of the models for Nicholas Evans's character in The Horse Whisperer. They're long gone now, they were really antique when The Horse Whisperer was made, but Randy Rieman was a protégé of theirs. He's the greatest guy and helped vet the horse stuff for me in the novel.

A major theme of Painted Horses is preservation versus progress. What are your thoughts on tradition losing out to dreams of the future?

I think it's this endless push and pull in the human arc, and I also think--and this is probably the one way in which you could describe me as having a postmodernist sensibility--that we live in the first human era in which we're really totally aware of the impact of human progress and human survival on the very things that sustain us and the environment both in a subsistence way and a spiritual way. I don't think environmentalism is appealing to people as a general rule except for abstract reasons. However, if you can make the argument that we're damaging ourselves and our own future and also our own spiritual ability, not to get too woo-woo with it, to embrace and have a completely enriched experience within the world that we occupy, you can get a lot farther with that honey than you can with the doctrinaire vinegar of "humans don't have a right to run roughshod over everything."

How did you prepare to write from the female perspective?

I think I'm a good listener and a good observer, and once I got into Catherine's character, I tried to find things in common from my own experience to what a young woman, especially in the 1950s, might be attempting to chart her course with. I read a lot of female authors, and once I jumped into it I didn't find that it was a struggle to write about her. I also knew from the get-go that I wanted a female editor, and within two minutes of our first telephone conversation, I absolutely knew that I wanted Amy Hundley to be my editor. When we went through the editing process, we did nothing with John H at all. What we mostly did was work on Catherine, and I think Amy described it best: we just have to give her as much heft as John H has because she has to balance him totally in the book.

Probably the biggest compliment to me is I've had a number of women of different ages tell me that they would forget they were reading a book that had been written by a man. I mean, I can't ask for anything more complimentary than that. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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