As America commits fully to World War I, a lady horse whisperer likewise resolves to succeed.
In November 1917, the war has stripped the farming communities of Oregon nearly bare of able-bodied men, so when tall, strong 19-year-old Martha Lessen drops by George Bliss’s farm asking for work as a horse-breaker, George is inclined to listen. If he’s astonished at her gentle, non-coercive methods, he hides it—but there’s no doubting that Martha works tirelessly and uncomplainingly, and that her techniques prove highly effective, even on supposedly intractable beasts. Soon nearby farms are asking for Martha’s services, so she rides a long daily circuit, ensuring that lessons learned stay learned. And though Martha confidently handles the few remaining male farm hands, she’s less sure-footed interacting with the farm women whose loves and troubles seem a world removed. Gradually, though, the community absorbs Martha. One farmer’s a drunk; another dies horribly of cancer; still another has a sadistic streak, and his idea of horse-breaking is to brutalize the animal into submission. She attends church and goes to dances in borrowed dress and shoes. To her own astonishment—she regards herself as unmarriageable and has little interest in the subject—Martha finds herself being courted by sensitive cowpoke Henry Frazer. As the winter wears on, anti-German sentiment rises—bad news for families who have their houses torched or are blackmailed into buying Liberty Bonds to prove their loyalty—and Martha grows toward maturity and fulfillment.
Despite the sometimes wrenching shifts in narrative point of view, Gloss (Wild Life, 2000, etc.) offers an acutely observed, often lyrical portrayal that mirrors our own era and, title notwithstanding, has as much to say about people as about horses.