Lately I’ve been thinking about “strong female characters”, inspired in large part by blog posts like this one by NK Jemisin and this one by Liz Bourke. I put “strong female characters” in scare quotes not because I scorn the term, but because it’s one that seems to mean a lot of different things to different people. For some, a “strong female character” has to be one with significant agency — someone who leads others or who changes the world around her through deliberate action. Think no-nonsense spaceship captain Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan or sassy, independent private detective Kinsey Millhone. But as Jemisin and Bourke point out, there are traits beyond physical or political power that can indicate strength — enduring terrible circumstances, building relationships, or simply refusing to change just to please the people around you.
I thought about those posts a lot while reading Molly Gloss’s The Hearts of Horses, the third book in the “Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction” Kindle collection. This quiet, absorbing historical novel is short on plot, but long on a strong sense of place and character. In particular, it features one of the most intriguing female characters I’ve met in any historical novel.
The novel is set in rural Oregon during World War I. The book’s main character, nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, is a “girl broncobuster” — someone who trains horses to accept a saddle and bridle and carry a rider. At the beginning of the book Martha rides into Elwha County in Oregon with three horses, looking for ranchers who need their young horses broken to saddle. As described Martha is nearly six feet tall and physically strong from a lifetime of working on a ranch. She’s also painfully shy (except when she’s talking about horses), inclined to solitude, and quietly enamored with a romantic version of the old West.
Martha’s strength doesn’t come from political agency, or from personal charisma, or from an ability to make other people do what she wants. It shows in her love of horses and her absolute confidence in her ability to train them without using a whip or other forms of physical punishment. She is willing to grow, to get to know the people in the Elwha valley, to become involved with their lives despite her shyness around people, but at nineteen Martha knows who she is and what’s important to her. She won’t let anyone tell her that girls shouldn’t break horses or that cruelty is the only way to make a horse behave.
As Martha gets to know the owners of the horses she’s hired to break, we start spending some time with them as well. George and Louise Bliss are the first to hire Martha and Louise in particular takes the girl under her wing — not always to Martha’s delight. The elderly Woodruff sisters and their hired hand Henry Frazer take an immediate liking to Martha. Alcoholic Reuben Romer bought a spirited horse on a whim but hasn’t been able to tame him. The likable Thiede family has been subjected to prejudice and suspicion because of their German ancestry. Most heartbreakingly, clever Tom Kandel tries to work through the pain of his spreading cancer in order to leave his wife and son with as much money as possible.
At times, the novel feels a bit like intertwined short stories, but I think the structure works to the book’s advantage. By beginning with outsider Martha and gradually bringing us into the lives of the other ranchers and farmers in the Elwha Valley, Gloss tells a story that is both about Martha herself and about this small rural community. The book isn’t driven by events or by crisis, but by the characters and by the rhythm of life in this valley during wartime. If you love character-driven books and historical fiction, pick this one up.
Rating: Buy it