Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel, PAINTED HORSES, is about horses. “Solid coats, bay and blood bay and chestnut and the stud horse himself, a dun the color of alfalfa honey with a black line the length of his spine. Not a piebald or roan among them.” There are the painted horses as well, part of Crow and Cheyenne tradition, and some colored by the hands of John H [the H may stand for horses, or it may not], a runaway, and perhaps a deserter, of the last Cavalry regiment in WWII. His sketches drawn in the dusty earth with a twig capture the running horses, and a trademark yellow handprint appears on the sides of horses and a converted Dodge army ambulance.
Catherine Lemay, a piano student, has the extraordinary good luck to be in London in the 1950s, ostensibly using her Fulbright to continue her education in music, when archaeologists are unearthing Londinium. Her life is changed as she visits the dig and touches the stones and artifacts buried beneath London’s streets; she feels the sharp sense that she is in the Roman world, part of history. Her passion is moderated by one of the professors at the site who tells her, “In archaeology, it’s helpful to remember it’s not all buried treasure and hieroglyphs. We’re also unearthing a bit of ourselves.” This advice is more prophetic than we could guess.
"PAINTED HORSES is a wonderfully told story, and each rich detail shows a fascinating piece of the American West."
Catherine changes her life plans and studies archaeology. She is commissioned by the Smithsonian to go to Montana to explore a canyon to make sure nothing of historical or cultural value will be lost when a major hydroelectric dam, 500 feet tall, is built at the mouth. The flooding is opposed by some Crow Indians; in fact, the Crows hold it to be sacred ground, but industrial and financial rewards are too great to hold back the Harris Power and Light Company.
Initially, Catherine faces the huge canyon and the task of exploring it alone; Jack Allen, a mustanger, and Miriam, a young Crow woman who taught herself to read before she started grade school, become involved in the task of looking for something that is so vague it is just something. The three camp in the canyon for several nights, and they make discoveries about each other and the stereotypes of 70 years ago. Montana of the 1950s seems even more distant when we look through the prism of our technology-driven age.
John H’s story is told in tandem with Catherine’s. Their first meeting is on Main Street in Agency, Montana, as she almost bumps into his horse. It was “a demon horse, garish and primeval with symbols in yellow and red, rings around one eye and bands up its legs and the splayed print of a human hand plastered on a flank.” She is terrified.
John H remains anonymous for some time, but Catherine notices the coincidences of their meetings. He rescues her from a long, treacherous journey back to town when she has a flat tire her first day in the canyon. He has lived in the canyon and knows how to survive; he is aware that the language used in writing on trees was Basque. He tells her about quaking aspens, trees that turn gold in October, and that all the trees along the ridges of the canyon are one tree. “One giant life. Aspens in a grove sprout off the root rather than the seed. Hundreds and hundreds of them, all connected underground.” He can tame horses no one else could even approach. And he shows her that the beauty of a place may be in its very emptiness.
The changes for Catherine and John H come about slowly, all of their movements set against the rocky, rugged terrain of the canyon. Nature is unforgiving but just. The man-made forces also push them to their limits, and they understand just how delicately tradition aligns with progress. PAINTED HORSES is a wonderfully told story, and each rich detail shows a fascinating piece of the American West.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on August 8, 2014