The Hearts of Horses

Written by Molly Gloss
Review by B. J. Sedlock

The ranchers of 1917 Elwha County, Oregon, might have expected a female stranger to be a “land girl,” a city-dweller come to play cowgirl while the male ranch hands are off to war. But Martha Lessen is a real cowgirl, looking for work breaking in horses. To spite her bronco-busting father, cruel to his children as well as animals, she trains horses gently—an early “horse whisperer.” Ranchers George and Louise Bliss allow her to bunk in their barn while she does a circle ride, giving green horses experience under saddle and bridle as she rides them from ranch to ranch.

In the course of her travels, loner Martha must interact with the other inhabitants of the valley. She helps rescue a wagon and team gone down an embankment, aids a family stricken with food poisoning, and rather reluctantly participates in social events like dances and skating parties. When Henry Frazer, foreman on another ranch, shows interest in her, she has mixed feelings about his attentions. She doesn’t want to end up like her mother, made sour by having six children in quick succession. Can a young woman in the early 20th-century West maintain her independence while including a man in the picture?

While dramatic events like death, illness, and cruelty figure in the plot, characterization and imagery are the most memorable facets. Chapter 25, depicting a rancher on his deathbed, is particularly touching without being maudlin. Gloss’s descriptive passages evoke vivid images without being affectedly poetic: “It had been foggy along the valley bottom but now the sun broke white and glittery in a dark blue sky. The snow here was deeper, and the limbs of the trees sagged under heavy cloaks.” Despite a leisurely pace, gripping characters and imagery propel the reader onward.