Painted Horses (Malcolm Brooks)

Article by keaton

As with any genre, the Western has its tropes. Even when a work of literature "transcends" its generic conventions, there are always preoccupations and aesthetic bulwarks that remain central to its storytelling. For Westerns, whether they’re set in the “Old West” of the late 1800s or in a more contemporary location, the most important and interesting of these tropes is the perpetual conflict between nature and manmade change--the embattled march of “progress” that, for good or ill, made this country what it is today.

This dialectic lies at the heart of Malcolm Brooks’s idyllic, bittersweet debut novel, PAINTED HORSES. In the remote Montana of the 1950s, an inhospitable and beautiful canyon--deemed sacred by Native Americans for centuries and still home to thundering herds of wild, free-roaming horses--is marked for flooding as part of a dam project that will bring electricity and all the comforts of modernity to the surrounding population.

Enter Catherine LeMay, a young, modern woman obsessed with the past. A gifted if inexperienced archeologist, Catherine has struggled against cultural expectations her entire life in order to pursue her passion for ancient civilizations. Now, on the brink of marriage, she finally has her first job for the Smithsonian. Over the course of one summer, she must ascertain whether anything of historical value will be destroyed when the coming deluge inundates the canyon and erases eons of history. Her only companion is John H., a former cavalry soldier and horse tamer, who mostly lives alone in the wild. A walking relic from a bygone age, he assists Catherine in her search and soon helps her find the beauty in the wild land before them. For John, this is more than simply a job: he knows the flooding of the canyon means the end of his way of life.

Brooks describes the natural beauty permeating PAINTED HORSES in rapturous, languid prose the reader follows across the page like an eye across a vista. He effortlessly evokes wonder for this soon-vanishing terrain, which in lesser hands might have devolved into simple nostalgic sentimentality. It’s a thin line, but Brooks navigates it with aplomb, exhibiting a level of skill that belies his status as a debut novelist.

PAINTED HORSES is reminiscent of other brooding literary eulogies for the West--Willa Cather’s THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE and Wallace Stegner’s ANGLE OF REPOSE spring to mind. And as with these classics, PAINTED HORSES ruminates on the spiritual price of progress. Although historical fiction, Brooks’s novel ultimately exhibits strikingly contemporary concerns. It reminds those of us caught in the ever-quickening changes of modern times that, while the erasure of physical markers of our history may be inevitable, there is always a dire and regrettable cost to be paid for the wholesale disregard of the past in service of building the future.


Malcolm Brooks presents PAINTED HORSES at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, October 21 at 7PM

Painted Horses Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780802121646
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Grove Press - August 5th, 2014

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