Bud Frazer is a nineteen-year-old kid from Oregon who grew up on a ranch and he’s really good with horses. It’s 1938, the heyday of the movie western and they’re always in need of good stunt riders, or, Bud discovers, at least they need fearless ones. Bud figures he’s the man for the job in Falling from Horses, by Molly Gloss. Whether you enjoy horses and/or cowboy movies or you’re scared of horses and wouldn’t see a western on a bet, you should read this book.
The story starts on a Greyhound bus, on which Bud meets a young woman named Lily Shaw. She’s on her way to Hollywood too, but with plans to be a writer. They don’t know it yet, but they’re destined to be best friends forever. In the tradition of stories that involve an important trip, neither is running toward something quite so much as they are running away from something. For Bud, it’s the death of his little sister and the fact that neither he nor the rest of his family have figured out how to grieve their loss. For Lily, it’s an abusive home life. This book twists the quest archetype slightly in that one of the two questers gets what he or she is looking for. But both find something much more, something deeper and more important.
I should probably stop with the plot summary at this point. I don’t want to give too much away, though the joy of this book is not in its intricate plot full of twists. Essentially, you know how the book will end within the first fifty pages if you’re paying attention at all. What’s more important in terms of the story is how we get there. But even that isn’t the main reason to love this book.
While there are myriad things that make me recommend this book, the overriding glory is the deceptively simple and straightforward voice of Bud, the narrator of the majority of the book. I say majority because there are chapters dropped in occasionally to give insights into Bud’s family life. But while those chapters do fill in important gaps in terms of Bud’s motivations, it’s still his voice that drew me in from the very first page. His description of the scenery as they pass by it on the bus is simply breathtaking. And the passages in which he meets and gets to know Lily are so real that it feels like I’m standing there with them, watching it all play out. As someone who aspires to write literature, I had two simultaneous responses. On one hand, I was filled with joy to know that such prose is even possible. On the other hand, I had to fight back the dreadful thought that I should just give it up and keep my job as a teacher, because how could I ever write something so achingly poignant and real as this?
A word of warning: while the book is in no way graphic, some extremely disturbing events are depicted. Bud is shockingly forced to the realization that life—that of stunt riders and of horses—is cheap in Hollywood. If you’re a horse lover, you’ll both adore and also be so angered by this book that you’ll want to cry. But, while the scenes are gut-wrenching, they’re true to what actually happened in Hollywood in that era. And Gloss masterfully avoids going over the line into lurid sensationalism. She allows the ghastliness of the events speak for themselves.
Read this book. Especially, but not only, if you love horses. If you love great narrative and real, deep, round characters, you will enjoy every word. And you’ll be astonished by the ability of Ms. Gloss to evoke in you nearly every emotion with such beautifully simple but eloquent language.
Falling from Horses was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.