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Painted Horses Hardcover – August 5, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2014: It’s tempting to dismiss Malcolm Brooks’s debut as the latest in a series of American epics treading on Cormac McCarthy territory: The Son, Fourth of July Creek, and The Kept come to mind as recent novels dealing with the darker realities of frontiers, both geographical and personal. Like The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity: in mid-century Montana, a dam project threatens to flood a canyon historically inhabited by Native Americans, submerging thousands of years of Crow history under hundreds of feet of slack water. When the inexperienced Catherine Lemay is appointed to survey the canyon for cultural evidence that could thwart the dam-builders, she assumes one corner of a Faustian triangle with a scheming hydroelectric shill and the mysterious John H., a rugged, reticent horse whisperer who opens the secrets of the country to the young archaeologist. Tangled relationships, difficult decisions, and hard compromises ensue. Decades and continents are spanned, and history unfolds. Maybe we’ve read this before?
But dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks's prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.--Jon Foro
Set in an American West of the 1950s but carrying vestiges of the nineteenth century, and with Indian artifacts and the ancestry of wild horses going back even earlier, much of this novel, like its milieu, has a timeless feel. Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist hired to explore a Montana canyon slated for damming and destruction, although she may have been hired specifically to find nothing, no evidence of why some of the local Crow Indians oppose construction of the dam. She is aided by Miriam, a young Crow woman (whose centenarian great-grandmother connects back to the Greasy Grass and Custer), and assisted (or not) by local horsemen and townspeople with a variety of interests in the land’s future. Two of the horsemen, including the enigmatic John H, served together in the mounted cavalry in wartime Italy, and, though some readers will rightly find in Brooks’ themes suggestions of Jim Harrison or Cormac McCarthy, the lengthy wartime flashbacks nicely recall vintage Hemingway. The book loses some credibility as it develops more contemporary plot elements, but its vividly drawn atmosphere and strong characters will keep the reader engaged. --Mark Levine
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I also thought that this book was sometimes hard to follow when the author jumped from one thing to the other. More of a clue would have been nice. You can figure it out but you may have to go back and reread a bit. That's a flaw that editing should have caught. It can happen when you are too familiar with a work and your mind fills in the gaps a new reader's won't.
Though there wasn't much of it, I also could have done without the animal cruelty. There are other ways to show that a character is amoral or despicable or that someone might sacrifice something he loves for something else he loves. Scenes of animal cruelty stick with me, and I would rather not have them in anything I'm reading or watching.
With the exception of John H, the characters were one-dimensional and frankly some were unbelievable--the long-suffering boyfriend comes to mind.
I wish this review could have been otherwise as I did truly enjoy some parts of this book. Also whenever I look upon someone's novel disapprovingly, I'm reminded of something author Rita Mae Brown once wrote at the beginning of one of her novels, which began something like this, "If you think it's easy to write a novel, I suggest you try it . . . " She's right. To write an entire novel, much less get it published by a major publisher, is a major feat of which anyone should be proud. And as I mentioned earlier, whether or not you enjoy this book is entirely subjective. So respectfully, and with apologies to the author who has accomplished something I have not and most of you reading this have not, I submit my review.
If you have a passion for learning about the downside of being an archeologist or love reading long (really long) passages describing the topography and geology of western canyons, and want to learn new vocabulary words in these subject areas, then you may really like this book.
The clash between big business and conservation is still so contemporary. I’ve been into that canyon many times, and it’s a majestic wonderland now, a waterway with high red cliffs that seem to go on forever.. His description of what it must have been before it was flooded is so compelling. The interposition of the archeology, and the Crow interests, for and against the dam, add so much, and make for a complex, satisfying story.
I also enjoyed his descriptions of the horse culture, of what it meant to be a cowboy, a horseman, as the modern world inevitably found its way to Montana.
This book paints such a clear picture of life in the west in the 1950’s, but also addresses issues that are still contemporary today in that part of the world – land, big business, Native American rights, Native American poverty, city versus country, conservation,feminism. Best of all, it’s likeable characters are alive in my mind, and their story flows on beautifully. Whether one calls it history, drama, romance, social commentary, or a bit of all four, this is a great book that lives up to its hype.
Anybody who has ever fished or hunted around the Bighorn will love it.