Some characters stay with us long after the last page turns. Those left pondering spirited Martha Lessen, who broke horses and gender barriers circa 1917 in Molly Gloss’ The Hearts of Horses, will meet her as a supporting player, two decades hence, in Falling From Horses, Gloss’ new novel.
In 1938, Martha’s married to sensitive cowboy Henry Frazer, and they’re still ranching, shoulder to shoulder. They’ve had two children, a boy and a girl—and a fair share of misfortune, as we learn from their son, Bud.
“My folks were still living up in Oregon in 1938, but they had lost the Echol Creek ranch a few months after my sister died and were back to hiring themselves out, taking work wherever they could get it, like they’d done before I was born,” Gloss writes.
Told by Bud from the vantage of old age, Falling From Horses is his story of a transformative year spent as a cowboy movie stunt rider, interwoven with reminiscences of childhood up to and including his sister Mary Claudine’s death.
Unmoored by the loss, Bud leaves the ranch for the rodeo but soon moves on to a bigger, more dangerous destination. “Jobs were still hard to come by in those days, but they were making cheap cowboy pictures as fast as they could churn them out, and I met a bronc rider at the Burns Roundup who told me you could get work down there if you could fall off a horse without breaking any bones. Or, if you broke one, at least not cry about it,” Gloss writes.
Down there is Hollywood, California, where Bud is anxious to press his luck. On a southbound bus, Bud meets Lily Shaw, a slip of a young woman from Seattle, whose carriage belies her grand ambition—to become a famous screenwriter, and soon. Her story, as told by Bud, throws his recklessness into high relief: She knows all about town from reading movie magazines and has a comfortable bed and a job lined up. He’s got the clothes on his back and barely enough to cover one night in a cut-rate hotel.
“Lily Shaw was the most straightforward, unconcealed person I’ve ever known, and she had a bold streak in her already, like she was heading to Hollywood to burn down the town. It’s one of the reasons I took to her. But I should tell you right now: when we met, I was the one who was more reckless. I had been nursing a dangerous streak for a couple of years, which she took for boldness, and I imagine this is one of the reasons she took to me,” she writes.
The difference between bold and reckless boils down to intention, Gloss says by phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. “Boldness means you’re willing to accept the risks, but reckless means you’re deliberately putting yourself at risk. Bud’s not suicidal—nothing like that—but he’s certainly reckless at the beginning, and I think, too, he’s looking to get away from his parents, from everything that he knows. What he’s going to learn is ‘everywhere you go, there you are,’ but he doesn’t know that yet,” she says.
Stunt riding is plenty dangerous work—not that Bud can find any. Desperate, he takes a job chauffeuring horses to the set, familiarizing himself with the city’s layout while awaiting his big break—and Gloss’ 1930s Hollywood is pitch-perfect, the evidence of meticulous research, for which she’s known. “I’m looking at two bookshelves that are 5 feet long, full of books, crammed with books, all for this book,” she says, “and that doesn’t count the ones I got from the library.”
Gloss is also known for restoring strong female characters to the types of narratives (Western, sci-fi) from which they’re often excluded. Just like Martha succeeds on the ranch, Lily makes strides in the studio. “Lily’s pretty out there, too, [like Martha],” Gloss says. “I read quite a lot about women in Hollywood, and screenwriting—that was where women were able to break in even from the early days. In silent movie days, there were lots and lots of women who were writing, so it was one place where I could put [Lily]. It seemed natural for that to be her goal.”
Lily and Bud both realize their goals, but his comes at a higher physical cost. Gloss reveals in the novel that the gut-busting injuries sustained by stuntmen are surpassed only by the brutalities visited upon their horses. That these majestic animals were treated like props—tripped, whipped, shot and even exploded—is one stomach-churning reality that’s important to know.
Gloss tries to soften the blow through perspective. “One of my motivations for the point of view that I use—by Bud telling the story as a remembrance from his old age—was that, in a way, I hope that puts a little bit of distance between the reader and these horrible things that happened to the horses. That was part of my intention. I do think those scenes are hard to read, but Bud is telling them from quite a distance, and he can kind of filter that through the lessons of all those years ago,” she says.
That the lessons come hard seems intentional, as if Bud needs to feel the pain of broken bones before he can address his broken heart. As Henry tells him, when he comes to collect his battered stunt-riding son, taking him back to Oregon to heal: “ ‘Things just happen and it’s nobody’s fault.’ After another pause, he said, ‘You ranch long enough, you make peace with what you can’t help,’ ” Gloss writes. The acknowledgement that he’s been seeking peace through pain as punishment for guilt associated with Mary Claudine’s death may be just the thing he needs to let go.
Readers may be as reluctant to part with Bud as they were with Martha—but, sadly, Falling From Horses is where their story ends.
“[Falling From Horses]is, in some ways, the endpoint of a cumulative meditation I’ve been having through my writing life: the way the cowboy myth has influenced American culture. This book—because it’s dealing with the movie world, which is where most of us actually get our cowboy imagery from—in some ways is the ultimate place where my meditations on those subjects took me,” Gloss says. “I’m not sure that I have anything more to say on this subject after this.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.