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The Hearts of Horses

The Hearts of Horses is a shining example of Molly Gloss’s gifts.”— Amy Bloom, author of Love Invents Us and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You

“With The Jump-Off Creek Molly Gloss has made herself a permanent place on the shelf of American literature that features tough, smart, independent women. Now with The Hearts of Horses she’s given us another woman in that same vein.”— Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong and Eventide

“Truly, one of the best books you’ll ever read.”— Jane Kirkpatrick, author of All Together in One Place

“What a gorgeous novel this is! I loved its pitch-perfect voice, the utterly engaging characters, the deft re-creation of what one corner of America felt like during a foreign war.”— Andrea Barrett, author of the National Book Award winner Ship Fever

The Hearts of Horses tells the moving story of an unconventional, strong-willed woman bucking society's norm to gently train horses without breaking their spirit.” — Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation


About the Book

You could be forgiven for assuming that the biblical adage “There is nothing new under the sun” holds especially true for fiction about horses and feisty female heroines. But on picking up PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Molly Gloss’s stunning new novel, The Hearts of Horses (Houghton Mifflin, November 6, 2007), you’ll be proven entirely, wonderfully wrong.

Set in eastern Oregon in the winter of 1917, The Hearts of Horses tells the story of nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, a tall, big-boned young woman whose shyness around other people is in sharp contrast to her tender yet confident manner with horses—and her fierce advocacy on their behalf.

There’s not a cliché to be found in Gloss’s lyric, literary prose, which sets Martha’s story in an unvarnished, unromanticized World War I–era American West. This West isn’t filled with brave, uncomplicated cowboys; rather, it’s peopled with individuals whose everyday lives are fraught with the stark realities of war, cancer, death, alcoholism, and the agony of unrealized dreams. But Gloss’s writing is realistic, not pessimistic, and she weaves the elements of The Hearts of Horses together to form a one-of-a-kind story about the connections between people and animals that is moving and heartfelt, with an abundance of historical detail.

The Hearts of Horses is classic, breathtaking Molly Gloss. In the words of Amy Bloom, award-winning author of Love Invents Us, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, and Away: “In all of Molly Gloss’s work, lyric descriptions and unforgettable characters are supported by an open, wide-ranging intelligence and not at all undone by dry wit and an open heart. The Hearts of Horses is a shining example of Molly Gloss’s gifts.”

Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, echoes Bloom’s praise:The Hearts of Horses tells the moving story of an unconventional, strong-willed woman bucking society's norm to gently train horses without breaking their spirit,” Grandin says. 

Indeed, when Martha shows up on George and Louise Bliss’s doorstep looking for work breaking horses, the Blisses at first doubt the effectiveness of her gentle, unconventional methods. But Martha’s techniques yield miraculous, near-immediate results, and soon she gains the respect of the men, the friendship of the women, and the solid, hold-your-chin-high satisfaction of having done right by the four-legged creatures she’s loved all her life. And along the way, Martha—who left her home intending to live a footloose, unattached life, and who was once happiest among men when they seemed to forget she was a girl—finds herself becoming an intrinsic part of the fabric of her community.

Filled with indelible characters—some of whom have four legs rather than two—The Hearts of Horses is a breakout book that will find a place on the bookshelves (and in the hearts) of readers everywhere.

About the Author

Molly Gloss is a fourth-generation Oregonian who lives in Portland. In 1996 she was the recipient of a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award. Her novel The Jump-Off Creek is a Pacific Northwest classic, winner of the Oregon Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Dazzle of Day, a novel of the near future, received the PEN West Fiction Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book. Wild Life, set in the woods and mountains of Washington State at the turn of the twentieth century, won the James Tiptree Award and in 2002 was selected for the citywide program If All Seattle Read the Same Book.

A Conversation with Molly Gloss

What made you decide to write this book? 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.

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 (see “First Touch”). 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. 

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.

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. 

Black Beauty touches Martha Lessen deeply. What books have had that sort of impact on you?
As a girl, the book I read and reread obsessively was Shane. Shane comes out of the heart of the wilderness, where his strength of character and his skills of fighting and shooting have been honed, and he saves us from the forces of evil; and when he’s finished with the necessary killing, he sacrifices himself to loneliness and heads back into the wilderness. He’s our classic American hero, and as a girl I was always deeply moved by that story. But I wasn’t thinking too hard, then, about the dark side of the cowboy myth. I still love to reread Shane, and I’m still moved by it, but what I see in it now is all the sorrow that underlies the violence. As an adult, the books that have deeply affected me, and I suppose have shaped my writing, have had other sorts of heroes: Willa Cather’s western novels, for instance, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop. And Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, which I’ve read at least half a dozen times. When I squint hard, I can see Silko’s book as a retelling of Shane, but in this retelling Tayo turns away from killing, and he doesn’t ride off into the mountains at the end. He heads toward the embrace of his people.

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. And just from a practical writerly standpoint, if your hero is a woman, and your novel is set in 1917, you’ve got to make decisions about whether she lives alone and prefers it, whether she’s married, whether she has children, and crucially you have to figure out how those things may complicate her heroic role in the novel. And yes, I’m aware right from the get-go that I’m grappling with questions every woman still grapples with. There are no right or wrong answers—that’s the only thing that remains certain to me after years of turning these questions over and over in my mind and in my writing.

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 would you say is the central theme of The Hearts of Horses
That’s a hard one. Can I refer you back to something I said earlier, about the darker, more complicated, more interesting, more human story of western settlement? That was one thing I tried to keep in mind while I was writing this novel, and it might have to stand as the central theme.

Do you tackle the writing process differently depending on the genre in which you’re working?
Really no, not at all. There’s always research to be done before and during the writing. There’s always a great deal of effort to bring life to the page. And to my way of thinking, there’s a continuous line between historical fiction and science fiction. We are every bit as distanced from the past as we are from the future. We have as much trouble believing the past was real, that its people walked the earth and felt the same things we feel, as believing there will be a future world and people will go on living their complicated lives after we are dead and forgotten. So bringing those worlds to life, whether past or future, involves the same rigorous evocation of detail and the same attention to the old human questions, which in my case, and even in my science fiction, are questions that circle around the western experience.

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.

Praise for The Hearts of Horses

“Not just a horse story or a tale of the West, Gloss's moving novel addresses themes of war, alcoholism, illness and death, and commitment to the land and a sometimes lonely, often harsh way of life . . . a story not soon forgotten.”
— Bookpage

“Gloss . . . offers an acutely observed, often lyrical portrayal that mirrors our own era and, title notwithstanding, has as much to say about people as about horses.”— Kirkus Reviews

“With obvious appeal for horse lovers . . . varies in action between a gentle canter and energetic gallop. Strongly recommended.”— Library Journal STARRED REVIEW

“[An] affecting, timely novel that lays explicit emphasis on empathy as a yardstick of humanity. ”— San Francisco Chronicle

“[Gloss] brings the period during World War I vibrantly alive with a tale of a female horse whisperer who moves through the altered ranch world bereft of males off fighting in France.”— Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Reading The Hearts of Horses is like hearing about the adventures of 19-year-old Martha Lessen from one of her straight-shooting neighbors, over a cup of coffee brewed on a wood-burning stove . . . Gloss ignores boundaries instead of defying them. The mythic and the mundane are one. So her re-creation of a romantic past and its irrecoverable dreams feels solid, rooted in the everyday of long ago, palpable as the curve of a china mug in your hand.”— Seattle Times

“Gloss's lyrical story follows the mesmerizing journey of 19-year-old Martha Lessen, who leaves home in 1917 to find work breaking horses.”— Hallmark Magazine

“Martha's tail end of the frontier adventures is chronicled in a delightfully down-home, matter-of-fact voice by Gloss, author of The Jump-Off Creek (1989).”— Booklist

“Gloss's austere latest (after Wild Life) features a wandering taciturn tomboy who finds her place in rural Oregon while the men are away at war ... following stubborn, uncompromising Martha as she goes about her work provides its own unique pleasures.” — Publishers Weekly

2007 Tour for Molly Gloss

Portland, OR
Tuesday, Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m.
Powell's City of Books
1005 W. Burnside

Saturday, Nov. 10, 3 p.m.
Wordstock Festival
Oregon Convention Center

Tuesday, Nov. 27, 7 p.m.
Broadway Books
1714 NE Broadway St.

Thursday, Nov. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Annie Bloom's Books
7834 SW Capitol Hwy.

Seattle, WA
Wednesday, Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m.
Elliott Bay Book Co.
101 South Main Street

Thursday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m.
Third Place Books
17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park

Tempe, AZ
Monday, Nov. 12, 7 p.m.
Changing Hands
6428 S McClintock Dr.

Tucson, AZ
Tuesday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m.
Antigone Books
411 North 4th Avenue

Sedona, AZ
Wednesday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m.
The Well Red Coyote
3190 W. Highway 89A, Suite #400

Corte Madera, CA
Friday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m.
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd

Eugene, OR
Tuesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m.
University of Oregon Bookstore
895 E 13th Ave.

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