ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Friday, May 29, 2015

Auker's THE STORY IS THE THING and Brooks' PAINTED HORSES


According to the inside flap of Malcolm Brooks’ debut novel Painted Horses, in the mid-1950s America was flush with prosperity and the West was still very much wild.  Like Painted Horses, I was born in the 1950s, a child of both prosperity and wildness.  I learned how to toddle my way down mountain trails used by deer and elk about the same time I learned which fork to use for shrimp cocktail.  I learned how to trust our paint horse Bingo as he high-stepped over rocks and around fallen branches.  Then we moved and I learned what it meant to say goodbye.  Life, I discovered, was not going to be a linear journey.

Nor is the journey you will take while reading Painted Horses (Grove Atlantic, NY, 2014).  The opening drops you smack dab in the middle of backstory that unfolds in real time—the smell of the ancient muck of an archaeological dig in London rises up from the page even as the female protagonist sinks her toes into the mire. In a deft literary turn to the West, we find her suddenly disembarking a train in Miles City, Montana, wandering down a muddy path and coming face-to-painted face with a tethered war horse.  Enter John H, and a new female protagonist. She was a loyal horse but also a captive mustang.  At that instant, I was tethered to the novel, eager for the round-about ride.

Reading Amy Hale Auker’s new novel The Story Is the Thing (Pen-L Publishing, AR, 2014), also requires a dexterous reader who enjoys navigating a winding path.  You’ll meet Uncle Bill, an old man riding a stocky bay horse, his face weathered by the decades, his eyes studying tracks on the dusty trail.   The next chapter leads us to the daughter of Bill’s ranch boss three days after old Bill’s funeral.  Within minutes, Katy has the squat wood-burning stove in the ranch house burning, the teapot hissing, and the pewter urn holding Bill’s ashes on a bookshelf.  He has left her a stack of yellow pads on which he meant to write only the truth of the previous summer, but somehow a far more complicated story finds its way from his arthritic hands elegantly onto the pages.

Sixty years after I first toddled down those mountain trails, I’m back riding them horseback.  Our old paint horse Bingo is gone and my parents' ashes have been scattered to the western winds.  The gray Arab horse I now ride brought me face-to-face with the past as the ongoing journey circles back.  I find myself thinking of the fully fleshed characters (human and equine) that inhabit the pages of Painted Horses and The Story Is the Thing—an oddly fitting title for a book, but a good reminder for all of us that yes, the story is what matters.  The story, for all of us, is the legacy we leave behind.  

NOTES:  In 2012, Amy Hale Auker won the Women Writing the West Willa Award for her nonfiction book Rightful Place (Texas Tech University). Malcolm Brooks received a 4-star review from USA Today for Painted Horses, also a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.