In the winter of 1917, nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon looking for work "gentling" wild horses. Many of the regular hands are off fighting the war, and though the ranchers are sceptical of Martha's quiet, unconventional methods, it is clear that she has a serious knowledge of horses. Over the long, hard winter, the townsfolk witness Martha talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair - and getting miraculous, almost immediate results. Ultimately, her gifts will earn her the respect of the men, the friendship of the women, and an indispensable place in the community.
The Hearts of Horses is a beautiful tale told in a simple manner. The prose is no-nonsense and yet somehow poetic at the same time. It is well worth picking up, even if you have little interest in Westerns or horses.
For me, the particular joy came from individual chapters that seemed to be almost short stories in their own right, telling tales about the ranchers on Martha's 'horse-circle'. Particular tales that touched my heart included Ruth and Tom Kandel (concerning Tom's fight against cancer) and the Thiede's, who are German-born, which becomes an issue as the shadow of World War 1 falls over the county.
Glass writes effectively and without sentiment about the hard lives of the ranchers, many of whom flocked to Oregon in the hopes of making their fortunes. There is heartache, and pathos, and engaging characters on every page.
Glass also offers us a perspective on the world outside the quiet Western county that Martha plies her trade in - Martha finds work because many of the young men have already been drafted into the army. She covers such sensitive topics as racism, terminal illness, and environmental destruction with grace and quiet commentary.
The overwhelming impression of this novel is peace: we drift into the tale with Martha's arrival in the county, spend some time with her as the shy young girl falls into a new life, and then drift away. It is an uncomplicated and ephemeral look at a long-gone time from history.