So many thematic threads appear in Malcolm Brooks’ novel, Painted Horses, so many ideas for mulling and musing. The romance of antiquity and of the old West, intersected by the reality of modernity and of industrialized progress. The scientific and emotional thrills of excavating and unearthing the past, balanced against the corporate sponsorship of an archaeological endeavor. The complexity of Native American interests—preservation or jobs? Women functioning in professional positions when society isn’t quite ready for their successes. Basques, both in the old country and in the new. Wild horses, some cornered and beaten, others running free. War, plus its aftereffects. Love.
All these ideas are braided into the stories of two characters that any reader will find fascinating. Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist hired jointly by the Smithsonian and a hell-bent construction company. An easterner who knows nothing about the American West, she is an unlikely candidate for her job to survey a Montana canyon for native artifacts before a dam is built. She soon figures out that the outfit so cooperatively paying her salary expects her to do cursory work. Since the time frame of Painted Horses is the mid-1950s, her professionalism is viewed from a sexist, as well as a corporate, lens.
As soon as Catherine drives her dilapidated truck into the deep and rugged canyon, she has a flat tire, mismanages the jack, and sends her vehicle off the road. That’s the first time John H rides into the scene and rescues her from her own naivety. John H is no ordinary cowboy hero, however. A complicated man who has a special way with horses, a talented painter with a knack for creating equine scenes, he has drifted throughout the West, earning his keep by working on various ranches, then isolating himself to pursue his art.
Other Painted Horses characters are just as appealing, just as complex. Catherine and John may sound like stereotypes, but instead they are intellectually astute, thoughtful, motivated by unusual pasts and willing to take risks. The men and women who interact with them include Catherine’s co-worker, Miriam, a young Crow woman with aspirations beyond the confines of the reservation. Jack serves as the women’s guide. A man whose first allegiance lies with the construction company and whose passion is breaking horses, badly, he is a subtle sort of villain, more opportunist than malevolent. Even Mr. Caldwell, proprietor of the local garage, plays an intriguing role. From his lips come some of the most profound thoughts in the novel, the most articulate assessments of the novel’s key conundrum—historic preservation versus economic development.
Malcolm Brooks adds depth and meaning to his novel by using flashbacks. We learn about Catherine’s training, and her experiences digging Roman artifacts out of London’s rubble after World War II. Again, historic preservation versus the demands of progress, and a city putting the past behind while the future builds. We also learn about John’s youthful apprenticeship to a Basque sheepherder and his wartime experiences in Italy and Spain. Basque and Native American pictographs and petroglyphs inspire John’s own art. Some of the finest passages in Painted Horses describe what he sees and how he sees it.
Six hundred words aren’t nearly enough to express the multifaceted nature of this book. Not only is it one of the best westerns I’ve read in a long time, but it’s also one of the most provocative and profound. Its landscape is evocative; its characters, powerfully drawn. What is most powerful, however, are the themes that Brooks tackles. Painted Horses explicates most of the dilemmas confronting mid-twentieth-century westerners. It’s one of those books that makes me wish I were still teaching, a novel suited perfectly for discussion and analysis, something to recommend to everyone you know. – Ann Ronald
Painted Horses is Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel.