Painted Horses is amazingly Malcolm Brooks’ first book. While it’s often fun to read about places we know, it can be more fun to read about places of which we know very little. The latter is true of the American West for me. I have almost no personal experience with the West but I find it fascinating — prairies, canyons, sagebrush, native American culture and artifacts, cowboys, horses, the beauty of Montana and more. It’s interesting to enter that world through the pages of a good book. Brooks has all that and more in Painted Horses.
The time is the 1950s when America is flush with prosperity, expanding and building although memories of the recent world war are still clear. Catherine Lemay is a young archeologist sent to Montana by the Smithsonian Institution to comb a vast canyon for artifacts ahead of a massive dam project. She distinguished herself in London on projects amid the rubble following WW II. In the West she encounters a world far different from London and her New Jersey upbringing. Among the people she meets are horse wranglers, embittered whites and native Americans with one foot in the past and another in the future.
The most interesting person she meets is John H, a horse wrangler with an intuitive genius for breaking horses. If you admire the beauty of horses, you’ll enjoy learning about these noble animals and their importance to the West. As a boy of 12, John H ran away from a foster home in Maryland and rode trains to the West where he was befriended by a Basque sheep herder who left the old country for a better life in the new world. Most of all, John H is a painter who chronicles the vanishing wild West. He inspires Catherine to see beauty and grandeur in the West’s stark landscape. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Army’s last mounted calvary campaign in the European war.
This debut novel is receiving warm praise as an authentic story about life in the West. Hopefully Brooks will write more. I would like to ask him why he chose to make John H’s friend, Jean Bakar, Basque. There are references to this language and culture. The hero even meets a Basque woman while serving in the Army in Europe. It’s the kind of thing that will send you to the internet to find out more about these people and their struggle to survive. But then, shouldn’t good books make us want to learn more?
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