three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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0
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A-MustangHorrified by three men who massacred 34 mustangs outside Reno, Nevada, Deanne Stillman, an investigative writer (Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave), traces the history of these great beasts, whose majestic, untamed nature is intertwined with that of America.

The Topic: While researching the murder in the Mojave Desert, Deanne Stillman learned that three Reno men (two stationed at an army base nearby) had, in one night in 1998, killed 34 wild horses for no apparent reason. This incident kicks off a narrative history of the mustang in the American West and the people who tamed and rode them. Stillman writes of fossilized tracks in Death Valley, of horses shipped to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors, of the iconic Detroit muscle car. She also warns that these mustangs cannot survive much longer, which doesn’t bode well for the American spirit: "With all due respect to our official icon, the eagle, it is really the wild horse … that is our true representative, coursing through our blood as he carries the eternal message of America."
Houghton Mifflin. 368 pages. $25. ISBN: 0618454454

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[Stillman] sounds a call to protect the herds still roaming pockets of Arizona, Idaho and Nevada. If the untamed mustang disappears, it will diminish a people who failed to save their ‘most loyal partners,’ a thrilling denizen of places still wild." Karen Schechner

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Like the best nonfiction writers of our time … Stillman’s prose is inviting, her voice authoritative and her vision imaginative and impressively broad. One cannot read Mustang in its entirety without realizing that it is possible to look at every single transformative event in North American culture through the lens of equine history—that there is no way to even consider the history of the American West without first considering the horse." Pam Houston

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Stillman zooms in on [the Native American-colonist] conflict, writing a long chapter about Custer, his last stand and Comanche, the Seventh Calvary horse. … Meanwhile, where are the mustangs? Finally, Stillman catches stride, bringing to life the years from 1864–1886/7, when cattle drives triggered so many of the West’s enduring romantic myths: faithful cow ponies, strong and silent cowpokes, dusty trails, starry nights." Irene Wanner

Economist 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Her book culminates in the fight against the powerful cattle-ranching lobby which sees the animals as pests and wants them removed from the public (federally owned) land where cattle graze. … Mustang makes for harsh reading."

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Stillman writes absorbing chapters on the Spanish conquests in the New World, the horse culture of the Plains Indians of the American West, the horse of the cowboy and the cattle trails, and the horse in the entertainment world. … There is, however, something awry in this captivating history and lore: Too much of it seems redundant and distant from the real subject of the book, specifically the wild horse." Dale L. Walker

Critical Summary

"[T]he horse is our great silent witness. … [H]e knows too much, and we can’t take it." Though in the end, Stillman may not quite pierce the fog of horror that drives people to do evil deeds, she shines light on the history of the horse in America. The desert environment seems to bring a wonderful languid quality to her prose, and she manages to turn the horse into an equine Forrest Gump, present at all the major moments in the history of the American West. Some critics complained, however, that Stillman stretches the definition of mustang to include any horse west of the Mississippi. And while some reviewers preferred the sections on Custer and the cowboys, others favored her story about modern-day efforts to save the mustang. All agreed, though, that something ought to be done for these glorious animals that have done so much to move America.