Martha Lessen has left home with her three horses, horses she "didn't feel she could leave ... behind" with her violent and abusive father. She's 19 years old, the year is 1917, and Martha rides into Elwha County in Eastern Oregon offering to break saddle horses. Martha breaks horses gently, understanding their fears and behaviors, and she finds herself at the ranch of George and Louise Bliss. The Blisses offer her a place to park her bedroll and hire her to break two horses for $10 each. Despite her shyness, she is slowly drawn into the lives of the ranchers and farmers of the county, who soon arrange a riding circuit for her. She'll work to break a string of horses -- riding them from homestead to homestead until all of them are ready to ride.
Despite her determination to remain distant, Martha soon becomes entwined in their lives and witnesses the small and large dramas going on: the drunkard who neglects his family, the spinster sisters running their father's ranch, a husband and father dying from cancer, the German Americans ostracized by their neighbors. The sisters' ranch hand, Henry Frazer, begins wooing Martha with the same gentle handling that she gives to her horses. Each of the character portraits is exquisite and the listener -- like Martha -- gets caught up in their lives in spite of ourselves.
The landscape is also a character and Gloss writes about it economically but vividly. The mountains looming over the valley, the cold and isolation, the fug of a barn, the cold cheeks of a skating party are all described. The horses have their own personalities as well, and there is such comfort and security in Martha's kind methods. It's the kind of book where you aren't aware of any forward momentum, yet suddenly you are at the end and you've absorbed so much.
The narrator is Renée Raudman. I admit to avoiding books that she's narrated because I didn't really enjoy listening to her the few times I did. She has two oddities that may make her unique for some listeners, but that I find annoying - a really broad 'a' and a slurred 's' that sounds like a 'zh.' These are in full evidence in her reading here, but when I asked my traveling companion if she heard them, she didn't even know what I was talking about. So, I moved on.
Raudman reads with a soft almost-whisper that nicely embodies Martha's shyness and reserve, as well as the quiet of the lonely country and the privacy that its residents profess to crave (even though there is a lot of minding each others' business here). She maintains a very even narration; even when the man dying from cancer is in his final hours (and these scenes are very distressing) or when Martha is attempting to rescue herself and a horse down a ravine, Raudman keeps her tempo consistent. I respect her choice; the novel is written in an omniscient third person that is reflected in her dispassionate narration.
It looks like The Hearts of Horses is the only Gloss book available in audio (I'm not counting the few cassette tapes still hanging out there in WorldCat). I guess I'll have to eye-read another one. It'll be worth it I think. Add it to the list!
[Fictional Elwha County stands in for the northeastern corner of Oregon anchored by the Wallowa Mountains. The photograph of this landscape was taken by Fbolanos and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
Narrated by Renée Raudman
Tantor Audio, 2009. 9:23