Idaho has been full of odd contrasts. Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation was preachy and full of shallow stereotypes of Idaho and its people. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson was a depressing, maddening, but lovely bit of prose that (hopefully) is not terribly revealing about the people of Idaho while being full of gorgeous descriptions of a glacial lake high in the mountains. And Borrowed Horses by Sian Griffiths was an angsty bit of fluff with some decent horse scenes and a bit more insight into the people and places of Idaho. This one has been my favorite for Idaho so far, but I say that cautiously.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on setting, where the setting becomes an integral part of the story, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now we are in Idaho.
Initially, when I put this one on the list, I was concerned that the character with Alzheimer’s in All Over Creation might hit too close to home for me. So, based on the publisher’s blurb (indicating that Joannie is an Olympic-level equestrienne who comes home to Idaho to take care of her mother who has Multiple Sclerosis), I added Borrowed Horses as an alternate to All Over Creation or in addition if that one went ok. As I said in my review of Ozeki’s book, the Alzheimer’s wasn’t an issue. However, neither was the MS in this one–it was practically non-existent. It seems to be more of an excuse to get Joannie home to Idaho–either an excuse that Joannie uses or one that Griffiths uses, or both.
Borrowed Horses turned out to be more of a romance than I expected or really wanted, but it was a light, fairly enjoyable read, and I thought it did a better job of describing the people of Idaho than the other books I’ve read for the state so far. I particularly liked that Griffiths didn’t paint them all with the same stereotypical brush that Ozeki used–conservative religious farmers who don’t like outsiders.
Joannie’s parents are “liberal hippies,” but Christian ones:
… old hippies finally at home in their self-created utopia. There was a great deal they’d never believed in: shoes in summer, compassionate conservatism, Walmart. My parents did believe, had always believed, and would always believe in one holy and apostolic catholic church for the forgiveness of sins, and they attended Mass every Sunday.
Still talking about her parents, Joannie acknowledges Idaho’s more conservative–and occasionally racist–bent:
He met my mother at UCLA, where she had gone to escape her parents’ rigid conservatism. My maternal grandparents still live somewhere in southern Idaho, but my mother has never told me where. She can’t honor a mother and father, she once said, who don’t honor life, all colors of life. She’s never told me that they’re racists—she avoids speaking of them—but from this comment, I imagine they are. Not just talking racists, but acting racists, the kind with club memberships, the kind who organize “nigger shoots,” the kind Idaho has been working hard to rid itself of.
For anyone who has read Tara Westover’s Educated, which gives a harrowing account of her upbringing in rural Idaho, it’s clear that Idaho has not been completely successful in ridding itself of ignorance and bigotry. But Griffiths’ portrayal of Moscow, Idaho, at least, does give some hope.
… a table of farmers sat in the corner, tipping cup to mouth under the sweat-blackened brim of old caps: John Deere, MacGregor, Caterpillar. College kids huddled in the private glow of their laptops. A lady in a jingle-belled tunic made her way through the tables to meet a bearded mountain man in the back. This was what I loved most about Moscow, the way it contained all these people, the way they not only tolerated but grudgingly enjoyed each other as they leaned from separate tables to speculate on presidential politics and Super Bowl contenders. I’d never seen another place quite like it. When I left, it seemed so colloquial and small; now it seemed Utopian. Neither view was accurate, though both were true.
This description reminds me a bit of how Emily Strelow described Oregon in The Wild Birds–that wild, eclectic mix of extremes from both ends of the spectrum. Despite her parents’ leanings, however, we don’t really get to see much of this mix, since Joannie is more of a loner, and hangs out mostly with the horse folks. The horse folks are a bit of a mix themselves–some of them the rich folks who can afford horses, and some of them the horse lovers who don’t have much money but pour all of it into being able to work with horses.
That part doesn’t seem to have changed much since I read The Black Stallion and other horse books years ago. Nor has the inclusion of a mostly clueless rich girl who learns what real life is all about.
There are other elements to Borrowed Horses, though I suspect at least some of them are common to romance genres–the outsider love interest, and the jealous ex (who happens to be married to the rich girl), the pain of an old emotional hurt that stands in the way of happiness.
Borrowed Horses gives a bit of a Western flair to some of them–the love interest is an outsider because he’s a Native American who spent at least part of his childhood living on the reservation.
You get your degree and so what? You think anyone’s going to hire some half-breed? Then what? You work in a cubicle and get ignored by white people? All to chase some white version of success? To them, I’m just another superfluous reservation dreamer, and they can’t wait to see life beat me back down to Earth.
As for landscape, this one takes place in the Palouse, which we’ve been learning about in Idaho.
Water had made the Palouse, flooding from Montana when the Ice Age’s glaciers broke, carrying the silt of Lake Missoula westward in a sudden, unforgiving sprint to the ocean. The wind has been shaping it ever since.
Griffiths has Joannie muse a bit about the differences between New Jersey and Idaho, but I found myself wishing she’d mused a little more specifically on those little differences:
That’s what going to New Jersey had been all about: all the little differences that made me realize that America there was not the same as America here, despite the McDonalds, the Walmarts, the Banks of America.
And there was an odd little scrap about the weather:
In New Jersey, I never saw the weather coming. The horizon was tree choked, and the clouds gathered quickly. [The barn manager]’d twist her face against the stillness of the sky, listening, then, “Everybody in. Now.” It wasn’t thunder she heard, but the wall of water approaching. The storms came so fast. One minute we’d be working away in the same old thick mugginess, and the next, sheets of rain rolled across the arena, instantly soaking everything.
I guess Griffiths was commenting on the “big skies” of Idaho, versus the more cramped horizons of the east coast, but I think the images would have been more effective if she’d actually talked about those big skies and seeing the rain falling miles away, maybe an hour before it gets to you.
The About the Author blurb says Griffiths is an assistant professor of English, which comes through in the occasional book reference and dream symbolism.
“You ever read Cormac McCarthy?” I shook my head. “Well, I can’t quote him exactly or anything, but he said that the problem with using history as a guide is that there’s no control in its experiment. We never know what would have happened if everything hadn’t worked exactly as it did. All the Pretty Horses. You should read it.” He took a sip. “Maybe it’s the chemist in me, but I always loved what McCarthy said about history needing a control. We really can’t learn any truth from it.”
This quote from Cormac McCarthy is an interesting one, though I’m not sure I agree–of course the circumstances “next time” will always be different, but I don’t think that means we can’t learn anything from history. I think it may be more important to recognize that hindsight is 20/20–it’s hard to see Hitler for who he is and the consequences of allowing him power when you and your family are all starving. History is happening all around us, but it can be hard to see it when it’s so close–and hard to believe that we could be a part of it. But saying we can’t learn anything from history… doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t even bother to make labor laws based on what we learned about factory working conditions? Or laws banning chemical weapons based on the horrific results of their use in World War I? There’s a lot we can learn from history, even without a control.
In any case, I felt this one was a decent choice for our reading challenge for Idaho. It wasn’t on the same level as The Wild Birds or some of the others, but it was pretty good–and honestly, I’ve been somewhat disappointed in the Idaho books so far… at least Borrowed Horses was better than Housekeeping! We’ll see what the others bring!