Reff Girl's Reviews > Painted Horses

Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
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did not like it

I am a sucker for a Western novel. Give me sage brush and quaking aspens, horses and scuffed saddles. My family lives in Big Sky country and I have shelves of my favorite authors such as Annie Proulx, Ivan Doig, Stanley Gordon West, Mildred Walker, Thomas Savage, Larry Colton, and Craig Johnson. Unfortunately, Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks is one Western novel you might want to pass up.

In this sprawling debut novel, we meet twenty three-year- old archeologist Catherine Lemay who is on a train to Montana. It’s the mid- 1950s, and she is headed to an area south of Billings where a dam is to be constructed by Harris Power and Light. Catherine is working for the Smithsonian, who hires her to examine the area and canyon for any archeologically significant site. Harris Power and Light has informed Ms. Lemay that it is a “natural alley” in the project, even though a delay or halt to the project would affect their time-table and bottom line. To complicate matters, part of the canyon she is inspecting is on the Crow Indian reservation and not everyone there is in favor of this project.

She encounters the stock-in-trade loner cowboy John H. as she just steps off the train to stretch her legs. John H. has literally painted his horse—handprints on the rump and stripes on the animal’s legs. He is on his own quest to capture horse culture in paintings and a lost herd of mustangs.

Catherine acquires a guide Jack Allen, a despicable cowboy who wrangles mustangs for the pet-food industry (cue the tension between John H. and Jack). She also has a Crow teenager Miriam to help her. Jack, who is on the payroll of Harris Power and Light, is more interested in leading her around the canyon and showing her everything but what she is looking for. Miriam is trying to help her look for any signs of early habitation by humans which would hinder dam construction.

The sprawling nature of the story also includes Basque culture and sheep raising in Montana, cave paintings in Europe, post-World War II Paris, kidnapping, stolen horses, and army desertion.

There are lyrical passages that author Malcom Brooks’ writes of life in Montana and the life of the cowboy, and he clearly loves horses and horse culture. But he also tests our level of credulity. The plot rests on the idea that the Smithsonian would be called in to make an assessment of a US Corps of Engineers projected project, and the only candidate is an unproven and untested archeologist who has never set foot in Montana. One has to think that Montana’s two state universities could have supplied an archeologist/geologist for the task—not greenhorn. This was the time of oil exploration refineries in the Williston Basin—there would have been plenty of talent pouring in.

While the story tells us that Catherine has some experience in London, she never spends her time in Montana mapping anything, or writing up notes or photographing what she is seeing. She brings along a movie camera that she doesn’t know how to use. She decides to follow up a lead and heads out into the canyon on her own, gets lost and runs out of food and water.

My second issue with the story is why would John H., who deserts from the Army in Italy during the War, head back to Montana? He is still up for charges of desertion. And gosh, doesn’t one of his old cow-punching buddies and fellow Army mate (Jack) recognize him.

Catherine is self-absorbed with no cultural sensitivity, yet she goes on about Rome and London. She is a blond-haired cliché that was raised in a Wedgwood-lined life whose only skill was the piano. In one example, it’s Miriam who stops Catherine from entering a saloon because it is “white’s only,” and she, Miriam might not get served. Catherine’s response, “Are you telling me it’s dangerous?” Although she is only 23, she comments on her own youth culture when she tells Miriam that Rock and Roll is something that “is just a fad for teenagers” and that “it’s known to bring out the worst in people.” In another Catherine and Miriam go to the movies to see “The Blackboard Jungle” and she explains to Miriam (who lives on an Indian Reservation) that the movie is about kids, “in a tough part of New York. Poor kids. . . You know what I mean.”

Verdict: Even with its Big Sky setting and lyrical descriptions of horses and wide-open spaces, I could not get past the basic plot. Like the song says, “Git along, little dogies” and pass this one up.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
March 29, 2014 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Nancy I agree...I had a hard time staying with the book...too disjointed and the characters were so blaaah


Kristin You took the words right out of my mouth. Took me so long to read this book because I just couldn't keep interest.


message 3: by Reff (new) - rated it 1 star

Reff Girl It is my personal pet peeve! Where have the book editors gone? This one needed a really good edit. Cheers, Carrie


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