Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks is a beautifully written novel that is at once homage to the vanishing American West, a window into history, social commentary on the clash between big business and progress versus cultural heritage and land preservation, and an enduring love story.
“And so out of yearning and cunning sprang tales of their own dimly recalled beginning, songs musing of the struggle of existence and the gods of the land and whatever eternity owned the glittering stars, legends of children birthed during astral events, under tailing comets or while red-and-green mists glowed weirdly in the northern sky, and the tales and the songs would pass down and pass down again and inspire ceremonies and rituals to ensure the arrival of migrating animals, the arrival of offspring, or to predict the lengthening of days into summer, and the rites would in turn compel one of them gifted with an impulse not unlike his own to create with his hand, his magical hand, images of the world in which he dwelled, a world and the beasts that occupied it now utterly gone save a single remnant etched in stone, deep in the heart of a canyon.”
Set in 1950’s Montana, it is the story of a young idealistic female archaeologist given the task of surveying a future dam site to ensure that no historical artifacts are lost, the Crow Indians on the Reservation desperately in need of economic development but torn between progress and preservation of their sacred traditions and rituals, and a veteran of World War II’s last mounted campaign in Italy on the lam from the authorities after refusing orders to execute the horses when their utility to the Army has ended.
All the characters and their back stories are richly drawn:
Catherine Lemay finds her love of archaeology while studying abroad. Trained as a classical pianist, she abandons her music studies at Cambridge after becoming entranced with the excavation of ancient ruins in post-Blitz London. Recognized for her archaeological work, she is asked to take on a survey back in the United States in Montana. Catherine soon realizes, however, that she is out of her depth. She faces daunting challenges from the rugged terrain and corporate America’s ruthless pursuit of wealth and power.
John H is a former “mustanger” whose skill with horses is a lost art that is no longer required or appreciated. He’s a loner out of necessity, living off the land, avoiding the encroachment of civilization and the law while still pursuing and painting the wild horses that are descended from thoroughbred Spanish blood lines.
Miriam is a young Crow Indian girl hired to assist Catherine look for ancient artifacts on land sacred to her tribe. With one foot in the past and one in the future, coming of age, becoming a woman, and unsure of what she really wants for herself or her people, she’ll be mislead into betraying both.
Jack Allen is another horseman who now slaughters wild mustangs for the money. Hired by Harris Power and Light to be Catherine’s guide as she conducts her survey, he is crude, deceptive, and dangerous. He’s really in the employ of businessman Dub Harris, who will not allow anything or anyone to impede or stop plans for the dam’s construction.
There is a timeless feel to Painted Horses. The lyrical style in which the story unfolds recalls works by Cormac McCarthy. You can visualize the land. You can relate to the characters. You can understand the conflict between the need for social progress and the fight to preserve the past.
Western, historical novel, drama, romance, or social commentary? Painted Horses doesn’t easily fit into any one category or genre, but Malcolm Brooks has crafted a book that is at once unique, mesmerizing, and haunting.