Painted Horsesby Malcolm Brooks
A big, enthralling debut novel of America in its ascendance, of history versus modernity, and a love story of the West, Painted Horses introduces an extraordinary new literary voice.
A big, enthralling debut novel of America in its ascendance, of history versus modernity, and a love story of the West, Painted Horses introduces an extraordinary new literary voice.
In the mid-1950s, America was flush with prosperity and saw an unbroken line of progress clear to the horizon, while the West was still very much wild. In this ambitious, incandescent debut, Malcolm Brooks animates that time and rugged landscape in a richly textured, sweeping tale of the modern and the ancient, of love and fate, and of heritage threatened by progress.
Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist on her way to Montana, with a huge task before her—a canyon “as deep as the devil’s own appetites.” Working ahead of a major dam project, she has one summer to prove nothing of historical value will be lost in the flood. From the moment she arrives, nothing is familiar—the vastness of the canyon itself mocks the contained, artifact-rich digs in post-Blitz London where she cut her teeth. And then there’s John H, a former mustanger and veteran of the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry campaign, living a fugitive life in the canyon. John H inspires Catherine to see beauty in the stark landscape, and her heart opens to more than the vanished past.
Reminiscent of the work of Wallace Stegner, Thomas McGuane, and Annie Proulx, Painted Horses sends a dauntless young woman on a heroic quest, sings a love song to the horseman’s vanishing way of life, and reminds us that love and ambition, tradition and the future often make strange bedfellows. It establishes Malcolm Brooks as an extraordinary new talent.
“Engrossing . . . The best novels are not just written but built—scene by scene, character by character—until a world emerges for readers to fall into. Painted Horses creates several worlds.” —Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today (4 out of 4 stars)
“Extraordinary . . . both intimate and sweeping in a way that may remind readers of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. . . . Painted Horses is, after all, one of those big, old-fashioned novels where the mundane and the unlikely coexist.” —Kent Black, Boston Globe
“Malcolm Brooks’ novel has the hard thrill of the West, when it was still a new world, the tenderness of first love and the pain of knowledge. This book is a gripping, compulsively readable page-turner.” —Amy Bloom, author of Away
“Painted Horses reads like a cross between Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, with a pinch of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient for good measure. . . . An earnest, romantic novel.” —William J. Cobb, The Dallas Morning News
“Evocative . . . a sprawling story about horses, Montana, Native American culture, archaeology and the development of the West . . . The reader is right there with John H. as he tightens the cinch on his saddle and moves on. . . . Brooks’ prose rings true and borders on poetic when he tackles the biggest things in his novel: themes of love, what one is willing to fight for, what to give up for something held more dear and, in the end, what it takes to recover from what has been lost.” —John B. Saul, The Seattle Times
“Reminiscent of the fiery, lyrical and animated spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy, and the wisdom and elegance of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Painted Horses is its own work, a big, old-fashioned and important novel.” —Rick Bass, author of All the Land to Hold Us
“Perhaps what really sets Brooks apart as a writer is his lush, breathtaking prose that expertly captures the raw essence of an American West known for its wide-open spaces and unbridled spirit. . . . By the end of Painted Horses, it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled to the end of the Earth (or beginning of time) and back in a whirlwind of dust and words. . . . This masterful book? This one’s all [Brooks’s] own.” —Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle
“There is both great beauty and muted sorrow in Brooks’s descriptions of the wild Montana landscape and John H’s vanishing way of life. . . . Painted Horses vividly evokes an earlier time, a place and a way of being that is at the cusp of great change. In his gift for the language of horses and the culture of horsemen, Brooks will inevitably recall Cormac McCarthy. And like Ivan Doig in Bucking the Sun, he mines one of the darker veins in the mythology of the American West.” —Molly Gloss, The Washington Post
“Painted Horses is evidence that the many-peopled, colorific, panoramic, fully-wraparound, pull-you-in-by-the-heels, big-questions, literarily deft ‘Great American Novel’ still lives.” —Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine and Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves
“To find such a grandly romantic novel as Painted Horses, these guarded days, is rare. Blood. Sex. War. Equine Expertise. Past versus Progress. Money versus Love and Sacred Places. One can almost hear Hollywood’s horsemen rumbling toward this tale, but Brooks’s magnificent sentences—many of them highly alliterative and rife with assonance—render these large themes tangible. . . . Brooks, a carpenter by trade, is a rigorous, top-notch craftsman of prose, abiding by the old adage, measure twice, cut once. . . . In its third act . . . Painted Horses becomes a page-turner of very special stock, with luminous phrases flying off the passing lines like red dirt from hooves. The ride is high danger, and the reader hopes dearly that Catherine and John H. can hang on.” —Chris Dombrowski, Orion
“Painted Horses is a wonderful novel full of horses, archeology, the new West, and two fascinating women. Malcolm Brooks should be lauded for this amazing debut. Very fine.” —Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and Brown Dog
“As much the story of the evolution of the American West as it is the coming of age of a young woman in the 1950s. . . . So assured and epic in scope that it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.” —Mary Amicucci, USA Today (“Booksellers tout summer’s hottest titles”)
“Malcolm Brooks has the same intuitive understanding of women that his character John H has of horses. Painted Horses is a beautiful, sensual, authentic novel. A western novel that is about so much more than the West, it is an exquisite, enthralling debut.” —Lily King, author of Euphoria
“Inspiring . . . Brooks, a Montana native, skillfully captures the vastness and austerity of his homeland, revealing both its harshness and hidden wealth. Already compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, I found Brooks’ landscape writing more lyrical and elegant. . . . A love song to the Western frontier, Painted Horses is a new, truly American, work of art.” —Leigh Baldwin, San Antonio Current
“The next great western novel . . . Vivid—and often romantic . . . The past echoes through the canyons of the West in this richly layered first novel . . . Brooks’s deeper thematic concerns . . . [are] expertly embedded in an absorbing narrative that fulfills fiction’s workaday imperatives: human drama, character development, a suspenseful plot fueled by clashing world views, each granted articulate advocates by a fair, but not impartial author. . . . His beautifully written narrative nonetheless inspires tentative hope, for both his progress-crossed lovers and the heritage they have fought to preserve.” —Wendy Smith, The Daily Beast
“From its filmic geographical canvases and epochs to its mesmerizing close-ups of men, women and horses whose weaknesses, wounds, and powers are in plain paradoxical view, Malcolm Brooks’ novel-making is always skilled and often breath-taking. There isn’t a passing landscape, archaeological wonder, minor character, dialect, or wild horse in this story that isn’t convincing. And the broken but magic horseman, John H, is for my money one of the great characters of Montana’s estimable literature.” —David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and The River Why
“Ambitious and affecting . . . A sweeping and dramatic saga . . . Brooks takes what could be a simple story and brings in a little romance and reveals the deep contradictions that are at the heart of Americans’ reverence for the West, until that reverence comes into conflict with progress. This is an important book but also an entertaining one, a book that is destined to form part of the canon of Montana literature as it preserves a piece of the past by exposing not just myth but deeper truth.” —Erin H. Turner, Big Sky Journal
“With a startlingly clear view into a past when the American West was still wild, Brooks transports readers into a breathtaking, ruthless landscape. . . . 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, Shelf Awareness (Maximum Shelf)
“Painted Horses is a gorgeous, luminous song of a novel. Malcolm Brooks not only knows landscape and history and the blood that stains it around the world, he also knows lost tribes that are merely hidden, ancient ways that yet reside forever in the few who choose to listen. This is a stunning debut and a novel that gracefully stands up to comparison with Harrison’s Legends of the Fall and McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. But as such, it stands alone. I suspect we’ll be hearing much more from Brooks.” —Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall
“Brooks’s debut captures the grandeur of the American West.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Brooks writes with a literary style well-suited to the big Montana skies. His descriptions are spot-on and at times poetic, transporting the reader back in time and into the wild lands of the unsettled west . . . The story flows like wind through the canyon, leading the reader to discoveries about nature, both earthly and human, that are as organic as it gets . . . Painted Horses is reminiscent of the classic western adventures, but is poised to set a standard of its own.” —Tara Creel, Deseret News
“Painted Horses is the kind of finely tuned and literary love story they don’t make much of anymore. Fans of Jamie Ford’s novels, or Jim Harrison’s, will be enthralled by Malcolm Brooks. He evokes a time and a place tinged by an autumnal sun, the brass thunderclap of things ending and beginning again. Painted Horses will carry you away.” —Doug Stanton, author of the New York Times bestseller Horse Soldiers
“Brooks delivers an authentic story, examining in gripping, page-turning prose what it means to live in the West. . . . An outstanding debut novel that will linger in the reader’s mind.” —Donna Bettencourt, Library Journal (starred review)
“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.” —Jane Krebs, Bookreporter.com
“In Painted Horses, Malcolm Brooks tells a spectacular story in which an archeological adventuress searches for signs of a pre-conquest culture in the rugged depths of a Montana canyon ahead of construction of a hydroelectric dam. Real and painted horses, danger and defeat, and an enduring love affair. Kept me up through a few nights.” —William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Willow Field
“An undisputed ode to the American West.” —USA Today (online via Bookish.com)
“Set in an American West of the 1950s but carrying vestiges of the nineteenth century, and with Indian artifacts and the ancestry of wild horses going back even earlier, much of this novel, like its milieu, has a timeless feel. . . . Though some readers will rightly find in Brooks’ theme suggestions of Jim Harrison or Comac McCarthy, the lengthy wartime flashbacks nicely recall vintage Hemingway. . . . Its vividly drawn atmosphere and strong characters will keep the reader engaged.” —Mark Levine, Booklist
“A terrific novel right in the vein of Jeffrey Lent’s In The Fall and Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. . . . What Malcolm Brooks unfolds is a love story, and a story of the creation of America as we know it.” —Miwa Messer, Barnes & Noble Review (“Up All Night: 20 Fall Picks from Discover Great New Writers”)
“Like [Philipp Meyer’s] The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity. . . . Dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks’s prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.” —Jon Foro, Omnivoracious (online)
“I read Malcolm Brooks’ new novel, Painted Horses, with fascination, then amazement. Big, thrilling, poignant, astonishingly confident, it is the work of a master rather than that of a first-time novelist. With a story that moves from the bombed cities and battlefields of Europe to the wild badlands of Eastern Montana, and an eye for everything from the quality of a horse to the techniques of painting and archaeology, it will draw you in and leave you dreaming. I have rarely read a novel that realized a world so well.” —Stephen Bodio, author of An Eternity of Eagles and Querencia
“Set in grandly imposing Montana in the mid-1950s and weaving together Old World and New World archaeology while vividly portraying an American West now lost, this debut also works in miniature as it deftly portrays two characters who become unlikely allies. . . . A bold, beautiful read.” —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (“Barbara’s Picks”)
“[A] wide-ranging, nearly untamed story . . . John H is mystery, historical and otherwise. . . . Good Reading.” —Glen Young, Petoskey News (5 out of 5 stars)
“Painted Horses is one for the ages . . . A combination of war story, art history, cultural anthropology and archeological history of Europe and Native America, mystery/thriller, environmental activism, and a romance novel—all of which is poetically written in explicit detail and marvelous description . . . All the while and with The Rolling Stones’ ‘wild horses, wild horses, couldn’t take me away. . .’ running through my head and reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s and Jim Harrison’s tales of wild horses and the far western Badlands of the U.S., Painted Horses did take me away and right into the thick of the story and its characters.” —Thomas Crowe, Smoky Mountain News
“The debut novel of the year . . . A courageous book, one that is at once stylistically bold and yet accessible, a page turner that is thought provoking . . . Some of the book’s most stunning bits of prose fall into Brooks’ descriptions of John H on horseback, in the canons and mountains of Montana. These passages are closer to paintings or etchings than they are to story, and it is here that Brooks reveals himself to be a prose stylist of the first order . . . Painted Horses . . . gives us truly human lives forced into positions of hard decision and lets us watch those lives unfold with a beautiful, troubled grace.” —William Hastings, Bucks County Herald
One of Amazon’s 100 Best Books of 2014
#1 Indie Next Great Read for August 2014
A Barnes & Noble Discover Selection
Amazon Debut Spotlight for August 2014
John H propped on his elbows in the sage, raised the binoculars. Twenty-eight horses stepped from a chute in the canyon wall and he heard hooves on stone.
Two were foals only, days old and knock-kneed, attached to their mothers by an invisible tether. Other mares heaved about with swollen bellies, ready to drop their own young at any moment. The herd stallion stayed to the rear. All had 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. He watched the stallion through the glass, watched him turn and test the air and shake his head hard, watched dust explode from his coat.
Once the stallion scuffled with and finally mounted another male horse, an unruly two-year colt that twice already had tangled with the herd mare. The stallion took him by the nape and began to use him like a mare and the colt fought it and scrambled away across the rocks.
He shook this off but kept his distance and when he began to goad a foal the herd mare pounced, sinking her teeth and driving him away.
Eventually the stallion would run him out for good. That, or be run out himself. The mares would come into season and the males would tangle because the chemistry of their blood demanded it. John H burned the red hue of the colt into his brain. This was the horse he would ride.
by Kirsten Giebutowski
1. At the start of her time in Montana, when Catherine steps into a café in Miles City, her eye is caught by Charles M. Russell’s painting When the Land Belonged to God, depicting the vanished bison (pp. 7-8). At the end of the book, during her interrogation with Dub Harris, she looks past his shoulder to the Gauguin painting on the wall behind him, a depiction of Tahitian natives (p. 325). How do these paintings speak to each other and serve to bookend Catherine’s experience in Montana?
2. Initially dismissive of the art Max Caldwell shows her at Inscription Cave, Catherine says, “These can’t be very old” (p. 131). How does she lose her snobbish attitude toward New World archaeology? Does the sense of awe engendered by encounters with prehistoric artifacts differ from the awe that encounters with the Roman world give rise to?
3. The novel abounds with instances of nontraditional art imprinted on the landscape, such as the glyphs etched into the trees by Basque herders (pp. 35-6), Inscription Cave (p. 131), the animals in the rock at the ancient quarry (p. 246), and the cave paintings (p. 296). Can we set them in opposition to Elixabete Borel’s view of art as perpetuating “grand illusion” (p. 289)? Are they any more authentic than traditional art?
4. The cave where John H views the paintings (p. 296) is no longer open to visitors, since exposure to so much human traffic has seriously threatened the paintings’ preservation. Is this an example of the idea set forth in this novel, that we kill what we love? Would it have been better for the paintings to have gone undiscovered?
5. Catherine’s trust in Max Caldwell, and his actions as guide and protector, establish him as honorable. When he speaks, we are primed to listen, and he is the character chosen to offer a summation of the larger issue at stake. He says, “Greatness gets built on destruction” (p. 348) and speculates on the unquestioning coldness required of people who push projects ahead: “Maybe they’re right, to waste not a minute wondering whether they might be wrong. How would them pyramids have come to be, weren’t for slave drivers and forced labor?” (p. 348). Is it possible to build without displacing or otherwise destroying something else?
6. Hired by Catherine for her supposed insider knowledge of the sacred landscape, how does Miriam subvert expectation and resist the role of native spokesperson equipped with a repository of secret knowledge? At the same time, what does Miriam teach Catherine about Crow history and culture?
7. How do Catherine and Miriam help each other grow and serve to expand each other’s sense of self? How does each of them, in turn, play the role of mentor and student? Were you surprised that Catherine so immediately forgives Miriam’s betrayal?
8. Does Miriam’s inability to fully explain the lodge ritual cast doubt on its meaning or sacredness (p. 265)? Is ritual bound to explain itself? At the lodge ritual, “The song rose like a fever, horrifying and beautiful at once, an ancient thing with ancient meaning and ancient power utterly intact” (p. 195). Is this Catherine romanticizing and wanting the meaning and power to be intact? Is it possible to judge whether a given ritual remains significant? If the meaning of ritual fades and physical ruins are inevitably destroyed by the forces of nature, is the aim to preserve the past futile?
9. Catherine and Miriam are both still searching for their sense of identity. Consider how each of them learns to reconcile how others see them with how they see themselves. Miriam, for instance, is highly aware of how outsiders see her as a Crow Indian, but what are her blind spots? In the first part of the novel, Catherine internalizes the expectations others have for her. How does she learn to fight against them?
10. When Max Caldwell tells Catherine the sagebrush is a sacred plant, in that moment: “She felt the word as much as heard it, felt an eerie shiver she’d come to acquaint with London rubble” (p. 16). Does Catherine fetishize the sacred by reacting so strongly to the very idea of it, especially when connected to something that holds no special meaning for her? Later in the book, transfixed by the sight of migrating cranes, “Catherine found herself spellbound, detached and delivered from the passage of time” (p. 120). Does this sound like an encounter with something sacred? How do these and other scenes explore the physical and immaterial aspects of the sacred?
11. Painted Horses is rich in references to historical figures and events. Audrey Williams and Peter Grimes, for instance, were real people; Basques like Jean Bakar did emigrate to the western United States and live as sheep herders; and US mounted cavalry did participate in WWII. How do fiction and nonfiction help each other to be understood in this novel? Is what is real necessarily truer than what is imagined? Do you think a fictional account of a historical period can get at a fuller truth than a nonfiction account?
12. Could what happens to Catherine when she heads back to the quarry on her own be described as a kind of vision or hallucination (pp. 271-3)? What do you make of the mystery of Crane Girl’s stone appearing in her pocket (p. 271)? And then Catherine isn’t sure whether she sees a crane or only thinks she sees one—isn’t sure whether she hears its call or just its spirit—yet following it leads her to John H (pp. 271-4). Is there magic at work here? Intuition? Are there other moments in the novel where Catherine leaves behind her rational mind and makes an intuitive leap that pushes her toward discovery?
13. Peter Grimes tells Catherine that the camera presages the end of archaeology: “The past will come through a lens and never vanish. You and I, miss, will constitute no mystery. We will appear to the future, and the future will already know us” (p. 254). To what extent is this true? Does having our personal lives so well documented by photographs, videos, web postings, etc., create the illusion of a continual present? Is there something to be said for clearer demarcation between past, present, and future, or are these divisions always illusory? Can ending and loss be a healthy aspect of life?
14. Speaking to Catherine of how she came to archaeology, Audrey Williams says, “I suppose you become what you continue to be without even knowing it” (p. 75). This has a ring of Zen-like wisdom and the paradox of becoming what you are. Would you say this about your own life? Do we see this play out as we watch Catherine grow into her adult self? What do you make of the element of passivity described here—is there a not-knowing and letting go of the reins involved in becoming yourself?
15. Only a minor character in the novel, David is nonetheless Catherine’s fiancé, a position that would normally grant him importance in her life. Yet once she gets to Montana, Catherine all but forgets him. When her thoughts travel to home, she thinks of her father instead. What purpose, then, does David serve to develop Catherine’s story?
16. Catherine and John H both dream of lifestyles they were not born into, and in their youth, each acquires an accoutrement that promises a different future: in Catherine’s case, a rucksack that “suggested the sort of life she wanted to lead” (p. 7), and in John H’s, the Furstnow saddle he claims as his own before he has the money to buy it (p. 144). How else do Catherine and John H understand and complement each other? How does their love lead each of them at the end to sacrifice what has been dearest to them?
17. When Catherine looks at herself in the mirror after a few months in Montana, she sees a stranger: “The hard features of the ground she’d scanned and scoured and crawled across these last days had stamped a mark upon her. Her face had itself become a mirror” (p. 170). How does her time in the West bring about a psychological transformation in Catherine? What habits of thought does she cast off in Montana and how does she grow into herself? As Catherine dresses for the Crow celebration, she studies her own copper-colored face in the mirror and feels “a sort of odd pride that she might for the first time in her life pass for something other than a white girl” (p. 190). What excites Catherine about this, do you think?
18. How would you describe Malcolm Brooks’s prose style? What other writers would you compare him to? Consider the following sentence: “The tilt of the planet had outrun the legs of winter and dawn climbed early now over the wide lip of the world” (p. 163). How does the elevated lyricism in sentences like this shape your reading experience? Is this an appropriate and even expected style for telling an epic story set in a landscape of such grandeur? What would the story lose if it were told in plainer style?
19. The idea to paint the horses originates not with John H but with his friend Yakima McKee, who suggests he do so “like the red devils done . . . Rings around the eyes for magic vision . . . Couple of palm prints here and there. Rattle ol’ Adolf’s cage.” (p. 229). Does painting the horses with symbols elevate them beyond their earthly, animal selves into a more powerful spiritual realm? Do the horses become living works of art that could be compared to the painted caves and the arborglyphs? We learn that although specific paintings differ from tribe to tribe, a handprint always means “triumph over another” (p. 265). Think of where John H leaves handprints—are they always a mark of triumph or do they take on other meanings, too?
20. The Barb horses that both John H and Jack Allen are chasing are given special status over the mustangs, given the purity of their breeding line, which dates back to the horses the Spanish brought to North America. John H calls them “flesh and blood, but an artifact” (p. 306). Is there a double standard wherein it’s acceptable for us to place value on animal breeding lines, a value that would obviously be morally unacceptable when applied to human beings?
21. How does the novel explore the politics of archaeology? Is there a way out of the dilemma at the heart of what happened at Cripplegate and with the dam project, wherein, as Catherine says, things of value are “sacrificed for progress” (p. 185)? Who decides what constitutes progress and value in these situations? Do you feel disappointed in Catherine for not fighting harder? In an overdeveloped landscape where space is at a premium, can a strong argument be made for preservation by record? Can claims of a particular site’s sacredness be measured? And if so, by whom?
22. Images of the landscape being separate but uniform run throughout. A clutch of birds are so much a part of the landscape that Catherine doesn’t even see them in front of her until they take flight, “like chips of the landscape come violently alive” (p. 26). And then there are the aspens, which Catherine learns from John H are essentially all one tree, born from a single root system (p. 38). How does the novel develop this idea in other ways? Consider, for instance, what Catherine says to John H: “The hand and the mind that moved the hand survived. They were us . . . We’re them” (p. 313).
23. Midway through the novel, we read of John H’s participation in the last US mounted cavalry campaign during World War II (pp. 211-31). How does this story—not often told—add to your understanding of WWII? And to your knowledge of John H’s character? How else does the novel show old strategies or technologies giving way to new ones in the 1940s and ’50s? John H is so impressed by the German-made binoculars he acquires and by the Austrian Mannlicher rifle the gypsies offer him that he thinks, “I can’t believe we’re beating these guys” (p. 236). How does the novel explore the relationship between technology and power?
24. The idea of killing what you love recurs throughout the novel. Max Caldwell describes Jack Allen’s lust for the horses in those terms. Peter Grimes “circles the dig like an assassin, stalks with his reflex camera poised” (p. 254). And Catherine herself comes to the conclusion that “one way or another, you will kill what you love” (p. 333). Is this inevitable? Have you experienced this in your life?
25. Painted Horses is thickly overlaid with dualities of perspective: male versus female, young versus old, Native American versus Caucasian, ancient/traditional versus modern, good versus evil, lawful versus lawless, insider versus outsider, etc. Think about those categories and consider where in the book the lines between them become blurred.
26. Does the showdown at the end of the book between Catherine and Dub Harris seem familiar (pp. 324-34)? Where else have you seen these arguments rehearsed, either in your lifetime or in history? Harris labels Catherine an idealist, thereby positioning himself as a realist. Do you think this is a misrepresentation?
27. What role does Miriam’s great-grandmother play in the larger story? How does the story Miriam tells of her great-grandfather’s role in the battle of Greasy Grass add to the context of the novel (121-6)? Even if the Mountain Crow and River Crow had come together in opposing the dam, would they have stood a chance against Harris Power and Light?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner; Some Horses: Essays by Thomas McGuane; Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy; The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana by Rick Bass; The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich; She Had Some Horses: Poems by Joy Harjo; The Meadow by James Galvin; The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig; The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis; From the Heart of the Crow Country: The Crow Indians’ Own Stories by Joseph Medicine Crow; The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation by Mark Kurlansky
Q: Describe the path that brought you to writing. How long has this novel been developing?
A: I was raised in a pretty rigid, pretty sheltered religious environment, and early-on had the sense of being sort of an oddball, the kid who learned to escape through the alternate universe of books and reading. I went to public school for the first time in the eighth grade, and my English teacher, Marcia Callenberger, gave me a book that changed my life, because it made me want to be a writer too. Lonesome Dove was unlike anything I knew existed, a hilarious, character-driven epic that followed no formula but struck me in the heart like nothing before.
I knocked around the West in my early twenties, learning carpentry along the way to support myself and attempting college in fits and starts. I read like crazy, discovering Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje, knowing I wanted to be a writer but not quite knowing what sort of writer I wanted to be, like a guitarist with a schizoid devotion to both Segovia and Angus Young. Thomas McGuane struck a chord with me because he was clearly connected to so many things I myself had a love for—horses and fly-fishing, bird shooting and the West and above all stylish writing.
I finally landed in Missoula, Montana in my mid-twenties, tackling an English degree in earnest and finding my way to literary parties and events through my then-girlfriend, a poet and MFA candidate. I hunted a lot and rode horses when I could, wrote a couple of novels I hated and began to publish essays and short stories in magazines, then landed a job as a writer and consultant for an outdoor television company, all the while concocting this novel in my head, this huge, sprawling book that would somehow connect the dots of everything I’d ever been consumed by—archaeology and the West, Basques and Indians and the Lascaux cave, hunting and horses and the inevitable pros and cons of progress.
After six years of morning and evening and weekend writing I named it PAINTED HORSES.
Q: Was there a specific reason you went with a female protagonist?
A: Initially, long before the actual writing began, John H was going to be front and center the entire time, but as I was putting all the various conceptual pieces together, I realized Catherine couldn’t be a mere plot device or a love interest if I wanted to tell the most fully human story I could tell. Plus I wanted to capture the era as well as I could. I think we tend to look back on the ’60s as the time of real change and conflict and paradox and upheaval, but the ’50s had plenty of that too, and in ways that could significantly affect women.
Q: PAINTED HORSES deals with technological progress and the erasure of tradition on several fronts. Can you talk a bit about the friction between those two forces and how it drives your writing forward?
A: This is a great question, because it makes me realize I’m as much a creature of paradox as anything else, which undoubtedly informs my writing. I myself can be quite a Luddite—I’ve got to be one of the last Facebook holdouts—but I don’t ever want to give up jet air travel, hot showers, iPods, and antibiotics, among other things. Bob Dylan, Talking Heads. Life and culture are malleable, and protean, and obviously life goes on, but at the same time, part of the price of progress, especially on the scale we’ve been capable of since the Industrial Revolution, is probably for lack of a better word spiritual, the danger of losing our own sense of the whole magical trajectory of what it means and has meant to be human. And paradoxically, it’s often modern progress that cracks the lid on long lost things to begin with—the only known Clovis burial site in North America was discovered by bulldozer during a drain field project.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the US Army’s last mounted cavalry in World War II?
A: This was the springboard for the entire novel. I only knew about the ad hoc World War II cavalry in Italy because of a chance conversation when I was 19. I worked for my father’s construction company, and he had a retired equine vet for a client at one point who hung around the jobsite all day. I was then and still tend to be the guy who sits there at wedding receptions and birthday parties and talks to old people when nobody else seems to want to, and over the years I’ve heard some really amazing stories as a result. This guy figured out that I liked horses, liked hunting, and so on, and he would just sit there and jaw with me.
Eventually he told me he’d been a part of the last U.S. mounted cavalry effort, in World War II Italy, and I was just fascinated by the whole notion because I’d never had a clue such a thing had ever occurred. Over the years I tried to find a reference to what he was talking about in history books and whatnot, and other than a really oblique aside here and there, came up for the most part pretty blank. Then when the Internet realized its full potential I tracked down an old magazine story in an Army publication called Cavalry Journal, from 1942. It was a full-length feature on exactly what he had described to me, with really amazing anecdotes and photos. It’s still the only significant source material I’ve been able to find.
Q: And how about Londinium?
A: I knew a bit about post-Blitz archaeology, and definitely knew it was instrumental in the modern concept of salvage or rescue archaeology. Really the germ of Catherine’s backstory came from my former mother-in-law, who went to England on a Fulbright to study the clarinet in the early ’50s. Although she didn’t so far as I know encounter any of the digs, I had a sense that these really interesting and significant excavations were going on right in the same era she was living there. And I knew about the history of London generally, as a Roman frontier fort initially, and Boudicca’s Revolt, and so on. So once I decided to place Catherine in circumstances similar to ones I knew to be true, I started to research the actual history and logistics of Grimes’s London digs, and the literal pandemonium created by the temple discovery, and it just opened this amazing world that happened to work beautifully for my own purposes with Catherine. Coincidentally, the Walbrook area is currently being re-excavated right now, for the first time since the post-Blitz excavations I describe in the novel.
Q: Tell us about your history with horses.
A: I think my interest goes back to the womb, or nearly so. My mother grew up on a farm in South Jersey, and was one of those girls who lived, slept, and breathed horses. When I was born, she owned what had been the New York State champion trail horse, a gigantic palomino named Brushmaker. I still remember him from when I was very, very small—he was nearly seventeen hands, practically draft horse height. The first time I was on horseback by myself I was probably four or five, again at my grandparents’ farm. I tried to jump a ditch and instantly fell off, but just as instantly climbed back on which I guess says something about my interest level at least.
I rode as much as I could at the farm for a few years, and badly wanted a horse of my own when we moved out to northern California—we lived in the heart of endurance riding country, and I wanted to try my hand at it but never did get to. Luckily we had friends down the road with a number of fiery little Arabians, and I rode those horses all the time in high school. You had to have your wits about you because they weren’t polite horses by any means, but I learned to ride fairly well on a pretty rough landscape.Nowadays I mostly ride my neighbor’s horses—he’s eighty-two and has Missouri Foxtrotters, which are a gaited horse in the manner of a Tennessee Walker. I don’t consider myself any sort of vocational expert, but I have spent a fair amount of time around horses, and have always had a pretty intense interest. Some of it’s almost certainly totemic—the impact of horse domestication on human culture is obviously incalculable, and really embedded I think in certain people’s psyches. Evidently I’m one of them.
Q: How has your experience living in Montana shaped your writing?
A: I actually fell in love with the idea of Montana long before I ever visited, thanks to my first subscription to Field & Stream. Then in my teens, Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall really set the hook. Of course once I got here, the myth didn’t totally square with the reality.
Montana is in many ways this sort of retrograde place, and obviously sort of mythologized for unsullied, pristine wilderness, and yet it’s also home to the largest Superfund site in America, or one of them. Economically it can be very difficult to make a reasonable living here, but real estate values at the same time are astronomical. There’s tension between environmentalists and developers, between resident and non-resident landowners, between the tribal and state and federal governments, between fishing guides and cattle ranchers’ you name it.
I guess I’m saying Montana is a place of pretty pronounced dualities, and the tension of dualities, and that can be major fodder for a writer. And visually, for a person who basically worships beauty, it is indeed breathtaking.