There are some books that leave a lovely ache. Some books that reach into your bones and squeeze until you say “NO MORE” but you keep reading anyway. For me, Jane Smiley’s HORSE HEAVEN is one of those books. Smiley is a talented author who can write with that perfect level of fervent passion that is often either too much or not enough. Her level is the Goldilocks level – just right oh so matter of fact. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for A THOUSAND ACRES, a book I read ages ago after the movie came out.
HORSE HEAVEN was published in 2000, but it just found its way to the top of my TBR pile. Spanning two years and following all sorts of folks and horses in its 561 pages, this novel is a bit of a mouthful but at no point does it feel as if its spiraling or rambling. Each word is placed with careful precision. It makes for a beautiful world of beautiful creatures, but we all know horse racing isn’t beautiful.
The grit of this novel, the treatment of the horses, caused some expected unease. For many in the sport, it isn’t about the individual horse – it’s about the sport, the race, the glamour, the victory, the roses. And in the high stakes world of ponies, people will do just about anything to win. And while the main four horses may have ultimately received the best happily ever after possible for them, their journeys to that point were not always pleasant.
Early in the novel, one of our main characters, Joy Gorham, mare manager at Tompkins ranch, opened a letter from an 11-year-old girl, Audrey Schmidt. The young girl was, as many young girls are, bitten by the horse bug. There was a horse near her school that she took a fancy to and began to care for. The horse was mistreated and half-starved. She contacted the Thoroughbred Protective Association and provided the information from the tattoo on the horse’s lip and learned that he was *Terza Rime, a stakes winner who won seven races out of 52 starts, who had been sold by Tompkins ranch. The girl is leaving the area and is concerned about the horse she calls Toto, so she writes to Mr. Tompkins, the former owner. She concludes her letter as follows:
I think that since *Terza Rima won $300,000 dollars for you, you should take him to your farm and keep him there. My Dad says that that is what a decent person would do, but he doesn’t think very many horse people are decent. You are in California. We are in Texas. That isn’t very far.
The reader quickly learns that this remarkable horse had been sold by Tompkins for $7,000 after serving his purpose as a racer. Since he was a gelding, he was of no further benefit to the farm. (Don’t fret – Joy gets the horse, and Audrey ends up getting her own pony after a series of unfortunate events for both her and the horse that ultimately ends up under her care.)
The sentiment that Audrey’s father had expressed rings true throughout the novel – many of the characters are not decent. Horses are drugged, abused, raced with known injuries, and sold to slaughter. They are often easily discarded without a second thought. Don’t get me wrong – there are many people who love the horses, but those are seldom the people in positions of power. Exercise riders. Grooms. Some trainers.
Early in the novel, the wife of one of the owners finds herself in an affair with her trainer. (No surprise there.) I liked this trainer. I loved the leadup to the affair and the writing about and of the affair. I liked Rosalind with him. But the affair, like most, simply cannot continue. This is a high stakes world. And when it ends, Smiley wants to ensure her reader is finished with the trainer just as much as a Rosalind is; he hits her dog. Eileen, a feisty Jack Russell (and one of my favorite characters in the whole novel), was doing terrier business and barking, and he hit her. A vet was called and assumed she’d been kicked by a horse. She’s fine, but the impact of that scene on Rosalind is felt by the reader long after Eileen has forgotten about – there was no turning back after that. Not long after, Rosalind finds a new trainer – one who believes in her horse, hasn’t seen her naked, and doesn’t hit her dog.
HORSE HEAVEN is a novel of the human condition. Our hopes and fears. Our dreams and failures. Our regrets. It’s not pretty, but neither is life.
The heart of this novel beats fast, like hooves around a racetrack. It’s gritty, messy, and uncomfortable at times – but gosh how she breathes.