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June thinks of herself as lucky. She’s married to an attractive man, a chef at one of the more upscale restaurants in her small town. Every day she goes to work at the cafeteria at the elementary school, where she enjoys and understands the kids. She comes home to eat a meal her loving husband has prepared for her. Her internal dialogue is engaging – she seems like just the person you’d like to have as a friend. Pondering her place in the world she thinks “June had people who loved her too. She had Bill. She had people who depended on her. She meant something to the kids at school anyway….insurance companies had a way to rate someone’s monetary value so when there was an accident they knew how much money to pay out. June wondered if you could devise a rating system for someone’s true value and if so, what things you would measure.” June’s sense of herself, her sense of what is right and good is challenged when a man with whom she has a brief encounter goes on to rape and murder a woman who looks very much like her. She can’t shake her sense that she was incredibly fortunate and that she owes someone something for her survival. So she begins a relationship with the daughter and brother of the dead woman, telling them that Vernay, the victim, was a good friend. They accept her into their lives without reserve and Cindy, the young girl, immediately makes June her confidante and surrogate mother figure. Though June feels involvement with the family is right and necessary, she doesn’t tell her husband Bill the whole story. She can’t square her sense of herself as a righteous person with her more and more complicated deceptions. Then she stumbles on a piece of information that changes everything.

It’s uncomfortable for a reader to share an affinity with a character and then to be shown that character’s inconsistencies and frailties. Clement does a beautiful job of writing June and of having her move towards self-realization, all without alienating the reader. She also writes convincingly of working class people without condescending. This would make a compelling book group book.

Alison Clement is an Oregon author and a school librarian, which explains why she has such fine insight into children’s minds! She also has a blog at http://leftedgesuzy.blogspot.com/

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hearts.jpgWhen was the last time you read a book that kept you up late, though you knew you should get to sleep? The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss was such a book for me. Martha Lessen is a sturdy girl with a love for horses. In 1917, when many of the men in Eastern Oregon have gone to war and ranch hands are in demand, Martha sets out to find work breaking horses. But her method is not to ‘break’ them so much as gentle them. She makes an instant impression, standing, as she does, at 5’11” and given to dressing in “old-fashioned cowboy trappings…the fringed batwing chaps…and her showy big platter of a hat much stained along the high crown and the rolled edge of the brim.” She is first hired to work on George Bliss’s ranch. He is so taken with Martha that he introduces her to other locals. Soon she is engaged in a “circle ride”, training the horses by riding them one ranch over, stabling them there and taking the next one on to the next ranch. As the taciturn Martha gets to know the neighbors, she comes to understand who she can trust and who she should avoid. The book is peopled with feisty old-maid sisters who run their own spread, a young German couple suffering discrimination because of the rhetoric driven by WW1 propaganda, a widower who takes in injured animals, a ranch hand who beats horses. Martha begins as an outsider, drifting in and out of the lives and stories people along the way; and, at some point, as you know will happen, she is drawn into their lives and away from her comfortable perch as an observer from the saddle.

caprice.jpgMartha is a wonderful character, shy and damaged by her abusive childhood, but sure of her own self and the way she wants to be in the world. This book reminded me of Caprice by the poet George Bowering. That story is more tongue-in-cheek; a school marm turned vigilante sets out to avenge her brother’s death. She saddles up and chases the perpetrators across the west, circa 1890’s. And then that reminds me of one of my favorite femi-westerns of all time, True Grit, the story of a young girl who sets on out on horseback to find her father. She pairs up with the rapscallion Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the movie. But I digress. The point is that there are far too few of these stories of the wild west that depict the heroism of women.grit.jpg

There are some hard scenes in this book, including one where a wife watches helplessly as her husband suffers a terrible death from cancer. And there are the classic themes of the Western – the land as an Eden that is slowly being corrupted by the encroachment of man and the yearning for an earlier, more innocent world. I sensed that the author had done her research and had accurately portrayed early 20th cenutry life in Oregon. But finally I can hardly offer higher praise than my mother-in-law did when she finished it. She hugged it to her breast, saying, “now that was a good book.”

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