Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Defiant and Beautiful Work of Art: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Painted Horses
by Malcolm Brooks
Review by Natalie Storey

Stories that romanticize the harshness of living in the West have always sold well among people who don’t live here.  In his debut novel, Painted Horses, Malcolm Brooks borrows the rutted stereotypes of the West and then refashions them into a defiant and beautiful work of art.

Brooks, a carpenter who lives in Missoula, Montana, has a gift for writing stirring passages about horses.  Instead of rendering them as mere vehicles for cowboys, Brooks describes horses as self-willed, untamable and nearly sentient creatures:
Sometimes he sees horses in the distance, running on the plains before drovers on their own soaring mounts, manes and tails flowing like fire. Sometimes he rides over a lip in the land and startles a wild herd into flight, the horses spooky and skittish as birds. And sometimes, with the wind right and his wits in order, he catches them undetected while they graze. He bellies as close as he can and simply watches.
Painted Horses brims with the spirit of horses and other wild things as the novel tells the story of a canyon in Montana destined to be flooded by a dam just after World War II.  The dam engineers, champions of “progress” and “civilizing the west,” agree to go along with the Smithsonian, which must conduct a river basin survey in the canyon of archaeological sites before they can proceed.  The book follows a young archaeologist named Catherine Lemay as she struggles to conduct a survey of the canyon, even though the company men continually try to foil her efforts.  As she begins her work, Catherine enlists a young Crow woman named Miriam to act as one of her guides.  Along the way, she meets--and eventually falls in love with--a horse trainer named John H, a veteran who lives in seclusion in the canyon.

Although Catherine arrives by train from the east with typical assumptions about the emptiness of Montana, gradually she changes her opinion and develops a deeper connection to the land.
In the spring when she arrived she couldn’t understand this country, couldn’t will herself even to see it…Now she is a hunter in a bygone age. She follows other hide-clad hunters across a land alive with lumbering beasts, cold fires strewn behind, magic in the sky above. She looked out from behind the wheel and she thought, Take away the road, that barbed wire, that railroad track. A mammoth might rise.
By the end of the novel, Catherine disposes of her obsessions with ancient Rome and Egypt and begins to formulate a new definition of civilization.  As she does this, the developer who wants to flood the canyon for his dam tries to coerce her into writing a report that leaves out her findings.  What she’s found is evidence of a thriving civilization in the canyon.  The company man, Mr. Harris, embodies sexism and heedless economic opportunism, spurious ways of thinking that have long victimized people, animals and land in Montana.  “Your moment is again a luxury,” he reminds Catherine, claiming that economic progress liberated women like her from housework.  He also claims Native Americans haven’t reached modernity, making himself a mouthpiece for all the exploitative stereotypes people have used to talk about the people and the landscape in the West.  Catherine responds: “You talked a bit ago about brutes coming out of their caves, about mastering some metaphoric dark.  Achieving enlightenment.  From where I sit I have to wonder if what we think of as civilization isn’t considerably more barbaric.”

Catherine transforms but doesn’t win.  You can’t leave the novel without thinking about all that we’ve lost and continue to lose in the name of development.

Brooks’ novel also engages in conversation with Hollywood westerns.  In the beginning, Catherine owes some of her misconceptions to the movies.  “She had in fact anticipated the general vista of a cowboy movie,” Brooks writes.  “Red mesas and towering sandstone spires.  Minuscule horsemen galloping.”  The landscape disabuses Catherine of some of her assumptions, while her Crow guide Miriam makes it clear she’s not a Hollywood Indian.  “Catherine, you’re going to have to get something straight,” Miriam says.  “I never lived in a tepee.  I can barely stand to eat venison.  I like Peggy Lee.  I like Perry Como.  I worry that boys won’t like me because of my glasses.  I don’t know what Wedgewood pottery is, but I’m sure I’d love to own some.  I’m, you know, Modern.”

What I like most about Brooks’ novel is the fact that his protagonist is a woman.  The well-known male authors who write about Montana tend to favor male protagonists with female characters often reduced to adornment.  In Painted Horses, it’s Catherine’s drive to document and discover the significance of the canyon that pushes the plot along.  Catherine looks disheveled throughout most of the novel and she’s almost totally unconcerned with finding love.  She does find love with John H but she eschews this for her larger project of documenting what she’s found in the canyon.  I have a weakness for writing by men that accurately captures a woman’s perspective.  It’s a risk that’s hard to pull off and perhaps at times a little too proscriptive in Painted Horses, but in the end I found Catherine’s perspective believable.

The book perhaps unwittingly steps in an archaeological minefield when it suggests that cave paintings of horses John H sees while he’s a soldier in Europe look similar to those found in a cave in the canyon in Montana.  The idea that the first Americans might be related to Paleolithic Europeans has little evidence to back it up and has been called racist by some Native American groups.  Brooks has said that it wasn’t his intention to lend credence to one archaeological theory or another.  Instead, he was trying to trace the significance of horses and travel westward as stories and figures in the human psyche.  Indeed, I kept returning to marvelous passages like this one describing the landscape and the horses: “(T)hey could look out and see the canyon both rising and plunging all around them, see the river like a strand of mercury far below.”

Natalie Storey's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica Daily, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Common, Montana Quarterly and others.  She's a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar.  She lives in Livingston, Montana.  Follow her on twitter @NatalieJoStorey

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