Books About People, Horses, and Obsession
When I was a little girl, I was horse crazy. I read every book about horses I could get my hands on, and longed to have a horse of my own, which would have been a fairy tale come true. Alas – the fairy tale did not pan out, but I did live the horsing life through the books of Marguerite Henry, Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series and of course, National Velvet, the story of a shy, misfit 14-year-old British girl who rides her horse to racing glory (Velvet is the name of the girl, not the horse). Today I still love a good book that features horses and the people who love them. Like Mercury, sometimes the love can become an obsession…..but that’s the way of love, isn’t it?
My first title is by another Well Read guest, the great novelist Jane Smiley. Like Livesey, Jane Smiley has spent time in Iowa City – when Smiley was a student at the University of Iowa, she had a nonpaying job riding horses for exercise. Just getting to ride was payment enough for her. Several of her books feature horses. Horse Heaven is set in the world of high-stakes thoroughbred racing in southern California, and features an ensemble of colorful characters, both human and horse.
It’s a story of four horses, all yearlings, with names like Epic Steam and Busta Bob. Smiley somehow enters the heads of these horses! You feel that you are seeing the world through a horse’s eyes. The human characters – the jockeys, the owners, the trainers, the veterinarians – are a quirky lot, and some of them love their horses more than they do their fellow humans. Smiley has said she had an inordinate amount of fun writing this book. Readers will have fun, too.
I bet most of our viewers are familiar with Seabiscuit by Laura Hillebrand. This is the true story of an underdog racehorse by Hillebrand, who was a sportswriter before she became a best-selling novelist. Seabiscuit was an enormous celebrity during the 1930s and 1940s, an era of hard times when people really needed a hero. He had stubby legs and big knees that were not quite straight – in general, not an impressive physical specimen. But an eccentric, reclusive trainer saw Seabiscuit’s potential when no one else could, and he recruited a down-on-his luck rider whose specialty was training difficult horses. Seabiscuit was a hero for a difficult time, and the immense popularity of the book shows that the appeal of his story is timeless.
One of my favorite authors is Oregon’s Molly Gloss, who writes lovely, imaginative novels with a deep knowledge of the West. Her novel The Hearts of Horses is set during World War I , when the draft and the war created a shortage of men to do a number of jobs. One of those jobs was breaking horses. This book tells the story of Martha Lessen, a 19-year-old female broncobuster who, because of a shortage of available men, gets a job taming wild horses. But Martha doesn’t break them – she uses gentle methods to tame and train wild horses. Martha is a sort of horse whisperer – Gloss consulted with a real woman rancher in Eastern Oregon who works with the Bureau of Land Management to gentle and train wild mustangs rounded up on federal property. It’s a lovely story, set in a lovely part of the world – eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.
I have mixed feelings about my next recommendation, The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan, a sprawling, epic novel set in the horse country of Kentucky, just published this year. Morgan is supremely talented, and she throws everything she’s got into this story of a Kentucky family that has owned land and bred horses through multiple generations. You will learn a lot about horse breeding and racing, about race relations in the South, and about racism, bitterness, greed and pig-headedness, all on abundant display. Morgan is a gorgeous writer, and when she tackles history, philosophy and the natural world, she’s enthralling. Her problem is that she doesn’t know when to quit. Many of her characters go way over the top with their thoughts, motivations, and behavior, sometimes veering into stereotype, and the ending…..well, I won’t spoil it. This is a novel for the adventurous reader, who doesn’t mind pushing a few boundaries.
Finally, I want to mention one more book with Kentucky connections – Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I have not read Blood Horses, but I did read Sullivan’s book Pulphead, a fabulous combination of essays and reportage on everything from the rock performer Axl Rose to fans at a Christian rock festival. Sullivan is astute, enthusiastic and caring about his subjects – he doesn’t descend into snark.
Blood Horses is a tribute to his father Mike, who worked for the Louisville Courier Journal as a sportswriter, as well as a retelling of the great racehorse Secretariat, whose glory years Mike covered. If you want to try out a very talented nonfiction writer, you couldn’t do better than Sullivan.