Martha Lesson arrives in fictional Elwha County, Oregon, during the winter of 1917. At nineteen she's left her home in Pendleton intending to become a horse gentler for ranches in the region. World War I is raging in Europe and young men are beginning to leave their ranching and farming jobs for the war. Martha is a shy, big-boned girl who is more comfortable in her batwing chaps and wide-brimmed hat than she is in a dress. She is one of many girls in that era who traveled from ranch to ranch to break horses in a quieter, gentler manner than the customary spirit-breaking bucking style practiced by most men.
Martha is hired on by George and Louise Bliss who recommend her to their neighbors. Soon Martha is gentling horses for several folks in the county. Once all the horses are trustworthy under the saddle she begins riding them on a circuit to finish their training. Martha would ride one horse and pony (lead) a second horse from one client's place to the next client's ranch. There she would change horses and move on to the next ranch with the second set of horses. She repeated this at each location until she was back at the Bliss ranch. To "sack out" the horses she tied fluttering and noisy objects to the saddles so the horses would become accustomed to strange sights and sounds.
As Martha makes her rounds the reader meets and becomes acquainted with several of the Elwha county families. Martha quietly becomes a part of the community, and the reader becomes invested in the lives of her friends and clients.
The beginning of novel establishes the setting and reveals Martha's character by describing her training methods. I was familiar with the terminology and practices, but realized the rest of the book club members might not know what a bosal, McClellan saddle, or fetlock were. So I brought some of my horse books to our discussion to provide illustrations. I'm afraid I may have spent too much time on a subject dear to my heart (horses) but, after all, horses and Martha's training methods were a major aspect of the book.
We all agreed that the story took off when Martha began riding the circuit with the green-broke horses. She was the link between the characters with whom we became attached. And the characters were compelling indeed as they battled the landscape, weather, accidents, illnesses, and the modernization of society.
One of the more heart wrenching stories was that of Tom Kandel's battle with cancer. Tom and Ruth's experience with his illness was portrayed so poignantly that we all admitted to needing tissues at its conclusion.
We learned a lot about the era that was still fairly innocent before World War I changed things forever. Cattlemen plowed under their grazing acreage to grow crops needed for the war effort in Europe. The altered landscape would later contribute to the Dust Bowl tragedy. Young men volunteered for the armed services with great patriotism only to die ignobly of dysentery in muddy trenches or return home with missing limbs or spirits broken by shell shock. We were reminded that anything and anyone with German connections became suspect during the war. Long-time friends were shunned by the community because they or their parents had emigrated from Germany. And we learned that millions of horses died in World War I.
The ending of the book intrigued us. An elderly Martha tells her granddaughter: "You know, honey, I guess we brought about the end of our cowboy dreams ourselves." Then Martha thought: "Here I am in my old age and just at the beginning of figuring out what that means, or what to do about it." We pretty much agreed that we imagined Martha as a white-haired environmental advocate.
In summary, we decided the book was a wonderful illustration that it takes all kinds to make a community. Good hearted people as well as undesirable neighbors. And Martha was the link that joined them all together in The Hearts of Horses.
The Hearts of Horses was a dramatic contrast to the roller coaster thriller with which we started our book club (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). But the pace of the book was appropriate to the setting and period in which the story was set. Ms. Gloss wrote from an omniscient third person viewpoint and on many occasions jumped from one character's viewpoint to another's within the same scene. I felt she could have done a little more showing and less telling on several occasions. But I willingly overlooked the minor irritants to become engrossed in the place, time, and characters. Not to mention the horses with their own individual quirks