Midway through Sid Gustafson’s new novel, Horses They Rode, I found myself put in mind of all the second chances I have had. His take on the reknitting of family, friendship, and one man’s tumultuous life is such a story—a tale of second chances where hope effervesces across a storyscape of high country, horse corrals, drunkenness, and regret that seems, at moments, irresolvable. It’s a wholly American novel, for of course, America is a land forgiving of first mistakes—where a shot at trying again is fair and right.
Wendel Ingraham, Gustafson’s protagonist, is a ranch hand who has roamed Washington State’s Inland Empire, Idaho’s panhandle, and Big Sky Country on a multi-year binge, leaving a daughter and a broken marriage in his wake. A series of experiences, including encounters with a high-school sweetheart and with mentor, companion, and part-time Blackfoot medicine man Bubbles Ground Owl, leads to his sobriety and amends.
Wendel and Bubbles take jobs as hands on a ranch where they worked as youths. And this is where the novel cries its message in earnest. The protagonist is never so competent as when he’s reunited with his beloved horse. The symbiosis that is rediscovered between them, a language of faithfulness and trust, portends atonements awaiting Wendel. A gathering of horsemen and their mounts prompts language from Gustafson that is a gorgeous but gritty admixture of potential:
“Whoever they were, whatever breed of horsemen, they brought horses and they brought hope, hope that horses could revive a manifest heart.”
At the ranch there are additional reconciliations required of Ingraham. In their execution, he emerges whole, “. . . grateful for all the people who’d gathered to live the life they knew best, everything and everyone connected, men and animals, fishes and birds, grass, trees and stars.”
As in his first novel, Prisoners of Flight, Gustafson often joyfully eschews writing conventions. By turns, his forms are starkly tangible or cloaked in mythology. His prose is exuberant and accessible. Rhythmic, he often reads like a long poem: “Parents want their children with them, children of the land, something about having your children with you on the land, native children on native land.”
Horses They Rode is a one-sitting book. And it’s the kind of book about something important in a world full of books about unimportant things. People should like it.
—Brian Ames ’85
Ames’s first novel, Salt Lick, is scheduled for release in summer 2007.