In 1917, a stranger on horseback rides into the stark countryside of Elwha County, eastern Oregon. At a time when many young men have left for war, 19-year-old Martha Lessen is an itinerant bronco buster who "gentles" horses instead of breaking them. Soon in demand at nearby farms, she makes her way from homestead to homestead, family to family, gaining their trust and helping them through difficult times. As Martha starts to feel a sense of belonging at odds with her Zane Grey–fueled fantasies of the cowboy’s life, she must decide whether to cling to her dreams or take a different road.
Houghton Mifflin. 304 pages. $24. ISBN: 0618799907
"The plot doesn’t move so much as accrete, in the way that Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig manage to do in their novels, full of the wisdom of well-lived ordinary lives. … There isn’t a false move in this poignant novel, which demonstrates as much insight into the hearts of men and women as into the hearts of horses." Ron Charles
Los Angeles Times
"There is the sense of nostalgia, perhaps more precisely regret, so often present in stories set in the West, as if we had something precious and we broke it or failed to care for it. … Gloss’ intimacy with the landscape and ranch life is conveyed beautifully in particulars and small observations." Susan Salter Reynolds
San Francisco Chronicle
"It’s at this intersection of war and work that Gloss has chosen to locate her fourth book, occasionally a softer, sweeter, looser story than her memorable debut, The Jump-Off Creek, but once again a tale that pays understated homage to the spare, effortful existences of Oregon’s frontier people." Elsbeth Lindner
"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’s] 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." Nisi Shawl
"With more history and scene than plot, The Hearts of Horses follows Martha through that winter, showing life at its barest and bleakest." Ann Oldenburg
Molly Gloss’s affecting fourth novel turns the Western genre on its head with a woman as the mysterious stranger appearing on horseback, but Gloss is known for her independent, self-sufficient heroines. The Hearts of Horses is perhaps the most sentimental of all her works. Though the plot is more a collection of linked stories than a single, continuous narrative—a stylistic technique that most reviewers commented on but did not criticize—Gloss’s simple, unadorned prose and stark portrayal of the West during the first two decades of the 20th century create a moving, wistful memorial to a lost way of life. Shy, self-effacing Martha captivates her fellow humans in much the same way she charms wayward horses. Only USA Today suggested that the story lacks a certain warmth. However, Martha will no doubt beguile most readers.
Cited by the Critics
Plainsong | Kent Haruf (1999): In this graceful novel, Kent Haruf examines the intersecting lives of several people in a small prairie town in Colorado.