I admit it. Grammar mistakes drive me crazy. I spend my days enlightening students about the grammar nuances of a dead language. So I do have an excuse, or at least an explanation for my pet peeve. When I picked up Painted Horses and read the first line I cringed: “London, even the smell of it.” But despite the fact that this story begins with a sentence fragment I read on.
Catherine Lemay grows up as the only child of well-to-do parents who live in the outskirts of New York City. Her parents want her to study piano, so like a good daughter she gets accepted into Julliard and heads off to London on a Fulbright Scholarship. But while she is in London exploring the city, she stumbles upon an ancient Roman archaeological dig. One thing leads to another and Catherine gives up the piano and changes her studies to archaeology.
During a summer in the 1950’s, Catherine is hired by Harris Light and Power to look for Native American artifacts in a canyon in Montana. The power company is obligated to conduct a survey of the canyon before they flood it for their power damn. It is evident that the executives at this company chose Catherine because she is not only young, but also a woman who could not possibly be capable of finding anything in their canyon. The discovery of artifacts of any significance would mean delays for the company’s project and they will not let anything stand in the way of what they view as progress.
We are also treated to the story of John H. who is a horse whisperer of sorts an well as an artist and lives in the canyon that Catherine will survey. The author cleverly gives him a common first name and only a letter for a last name. He is orphaned at any early age and makes his way out west by jumping on trains. He has no family, no ties in the world and answers to no one. The best parts of the book involve the backstory of John H. and the development of his character as an interesting man who rides horses and paints them as well.
It is obvious from the beginning of the novel that Catherine and John H. are destined to cross paths. I was disappointed that the inevitable interaction between them does not take place until the last quarter of the book. Before their encounter, the reader is given intricate descriptions of American west scenery, a glimpse of the landscape of Italy during the Second World War, and accounts of Native American music and dancing rituals. Although it must have taken the author a lot of time to research all of this historical detail, these descriptions did nothing to advance the plot or enhance the story.
The strength of PAINTED HORSES definitely lies in its characters. With more careful editing the book would have been a better read for me. If you like archaeology, the American West, horses or historical fiction set in the 1950’s then give this book a try. The publisher is giving away a copy on Goodreads. You can add it to your shelf and enter the giveaway here: