In 1956, graduate student Catherine LeMay is hired by the Smithsonian to spend a few months in Montana proving that a canyon set to be destroyed by a proposed dam isn’t the site of any artifacts of archaeological significance. Catherine made a name for herself in London, and wjile North American archaeology isn’t her field of expertise, she’s eager to prove up to the challenge, facing down doubts from her parents, her fiancé, and her colleagues.
In Montana, Catherine is daunted by the canyon “as deep as Satan’s own appetites” and finds her guide, a horse breaker named Jack Allen, more adversarial than helpful. Still, in the small town near the canyon she finds people sympathetic to her project: Mr. Caldwell, a gas station owner and former dam worker himself; Miriam, a young Native American woman with loyalties to both the past and the future; and John H, a mysterious horseman with a penchant for painting and a knack for coming across Catherine when she least expects it.
The novel revolves around Catherine and John H. Their histories are slowly revealed as their paths start to intersect, and it’s in John H’s sections that Mr. Brooks’s writing shines brightest. John H is in many ways a classic Western (and Hemingway) hero: strong, silent, skilled, and deeply wounded by what he’s witnessed. By giving John H an early life far from Montana, and war experiences in Europe, Mr. Brooks expertly shows the lure of the West as it was.
Painted Horses is a novel of competing interests, particularly the perils of preservation and progress. Catherine in some ways embodies this tension, focused as she is on preserving history, while at the same time, both as a woman in a male-dominated field and also as an Easterner acclimating to the West, embodying different kinds of progress. John H, too, appears as a relic of a way of life that’s dead or dying, while also carrying with him the scars of the modern world. Like the best literature, Painted Horses offers more questions than answers, and resists easy political interpretations by giving us Miriam, who whirls in traditional tribal dances but wonders whether her family, too, shouldn’t want power and light.
The novel is filled to the brim with beautiful scenery, and unexpected scenes; a woman lining her eyes with kohl, a grove of carved aspens, a particular hat trod underneath a horse’s hoof. Mr. Brooks pokes fun at some of the Western’s favorite tropes; for every laconic horse breaker or sheep herder in Painted Horses, there is a character who speaks in paragraphs, a loquaciousness that seems unusual and a bit funny. Also unexpected, but most welcome, are the novel’s many references to Basque culture and language.
Painted Horses is a pleasure to read, bringing together as it does painting, history, archaeology, horses, and landscape into sharp focus. It’s a gorgeous exploration of the American West on the knife’s edge of change.
Coming soon: An interview with Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.