A Mariner Reader’s Guide to
The Heart of Horses
by Molly Gloss
Molly Gloss is the author of Wild Life, winner of the James Tiptree Award, The Jump-Off Creek, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and The Dazzle of Day, a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
1. “Martha had set out from Pendleton meaning to live a footloose cowboy life and see the places she’d read about in Western romances-she hadn’t come down to Elwha County intending to stay” (p. 50). What does a “footloose cowboy life” mean to Martha? Does she find it?
2. What are Martha’s methods for breaking horses? How do they differ from most other people? What challenges does Martha face as a female broncobuster and how does she overcome them?
3. Why do so many characters take notice of Martha’s outfit, dressing “like she’s headed off to a rodeo” (p. 39)?
4. Many of the characters in the novel come across as very lonely. For example, “Dorothy had been starving for female company, for any company really, so long as it wasn’t a child, but she didn’t say so” (p. 69). What makes Elwha County such a lonely place? When Martha attends the Christmas dance at Bingham Odd Fellows Hall, she “stood at the edge of their crowd in an agony of loneliness” (p. 105). How is Martha’s loneliness different from Dorothy’s?
5. Kent Haruf said of Molly Gloss and The Hearts of Horses: “She’s given us…a great deal of lore about the gentling of horses-a gentling that suggests both a practical fact and an enduring metaphor.” Explore the gentling of horses as a metaphor. What’s the secret to Martha’s horse whispering? How does Martha’s gift with horses reflect her character?
6. Explore how the circle ride, too, might be symbolic of something greater. Who is on the ride and how do the horses and their owners become a part of Martha’s life?
7. The novel takes place during the winter of 1917-1918, just after the U.S. entered World War I. In what different ways does the war affect characters’ lives? How has it changed the way the land is used?
8. Because of the war, many of the German families in Elwha County are mistreated, there are grand displays of patriotism, and many sacrifices are made for the greater good. How are these consequences of war similar to or different from those which occurred during wars the U.S. has fought in since WWI? Do you see reflections of the current war in Iraq?
9. Martha judges people by how they treat their horses. The Thiedes notice that she had “evidently made up her mind that people who treated horses decently must be decent people” (p. 108). How do you form your opinion of people? What is your moral compass?
10. While riding with Henry Frazer, Martha tells him what she’s heard of the harsh treatment of horses in the war. When Henry makes a comment about Will Wright enlisting, Martha “thought he might be making a point about the men, whose suffering ought to be more important to her than the horses. She wondered if Henry even believed her, that horses had their horse friends and that they might become homesick and lonesome among strangers” (p. 167-168). Why does Martha think about the horses first and humans second? In times of war, do you think it’s justified to sacrifice the comfort and safety of animals? To what extent?
11. Martha is responsible for getting Al Logerwell fired for beating horses. What are the repercussions of Martha’s actions? Later, she repeats a comment she heard from the Woodruff sisters when she says, “Well, there are plenty of men who will beat a horse. But they’d just better not do it in front of me is all” (p. 202). What is the significance of this statement?
12. Why does Louise Bliss avoid all news of the war? Why does the library she attempts to open through the Elwha Valley Literary Society become such a sensitive issue?
13. Martha and Henry’s marriage feels inevitable long before Martha realizes the path she’s on. What does Martha tell Henry she wants out of a marriage and how is he able to give these things to her? What makes Henry different from most men Martha has known?
14. Shortly after her marriage to Henry, Martha realizes that “loving someone meant living every moment with the knowledge he might die-die in a horrible way-and leave you alone” (p. 284). What events in the novel led her to this conclusion? How else did these events change her? Have you ever had a similar realization in your own life?
15. How is this book about the “hearts of horses”? Which horses are characters and what are their roles? What else might the title be referring to?
16. In the last paragraph of the book, Martha tells her granddaughter, “I guess we brought about the end of our cowboy dreams ourselves” (p. 289). What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her?
A Conversation about The Heart of Horses
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 Marmon 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.
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.
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