Painted Horses, a novel by Malcolm Brooks, takes one back to the mid twentieth century before the vista was littered with endless strip malls, where untamed horses and impetuous wranglers vied for the land. The tale centers around twenty-three year old Catherine Lemay, a young archaeology student, and a mystifying cowboy named John H who paints his mark on horse’s flanks. The land itself is a character, both benevolent, offering glorious vistas and water, and malevolent, with “a line of severe hills like the teeth of a saw blade rises massively in the distance….the stripe of clouds above the hills gathers amber then purple then blue.”
Even though Catherine has spent time on projects in Europe, the world she enters in Montana is more foreign to her. She has been raised within a country club lifestyle back east, with expectations to become a concert pianist, not a woman who chooses to dig through the earth for ancient relics. Catherine soon proves, in spite of privileged upbringing, she is tenacious and focused, and uses her instincts to compel her to accomplish her goal of finding historical artifacts to prevent building of a dam that will flood all that remains.
Catherine suspects she isn't supposed to find anything, that she was purposely hired by Harris Power and Light, the contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers to build the dam, because she is a woman and a novice. Harris and Jim Allen, the wrangler hired to help guide her in and out of the canyon, seem accommodating enough, but they underestimate Catherine’s tenacity and her growing suspicion that she is being duped.
John H, the mysterious horseman, inadvertently watches over her, and becomes her ally. Throughout the novel his back-story is gradually revealed. Interestingly, John H served in a cavalry unit during WWII because of his skill with horses. John H seems an unlikely friend to the young archaeologist, but by the end of the tale the reader cares deeply about him and Catherine, separately and together.
If the novel has faults, they derive from my own impatience with several passages bearing long descriptions of horses. (I know, duh, it’s called Painted Horses.) I don't dislike horses, but I don't know enough about them to distinguish one from another, and for me the narrative dips during those moments, but the fault is mine as a reader.
Another issue was occasionally I was unsure if a chapter was a flashback or taking place in the present. Because I was reading an uncorrected proof, this may have been resolved by labeling each chapter with a date or location.
Like most literary novels, the book does not have the stereotypical happy ending where the characters ride off into the smiling sunset; the ending has a realistic resolution. Fans of Annie Proulx or Wallace Stegner will enjoy this book. Painted Horses is an ambitious debut, a ruminative, adventurous story that resonates, and these characters will stay with me for awhile.