Prepare to disappear into this galloping, utterly engrossing debut by Missoula author Malcolm Brooks.
It’s 1956, and fledgling archaeologist Catherine Lemay is hired to look for artifacts in an unexplored canyon on the edge of the Crow Reservation. She takes on a young Crow woman, Miriam, as her assistant, and with a reluctant, edgy guide, who hunted mustangs and Nazis, they begin to explore a canyon that’s “fifty miles long and deeper than Satan’s own appetites.” Their mission is to unearth historical sites and artifacts before a dam is erected at its mouth.
Reared in the East and schooled in London, exhuming Roman artifacts after the Blitz, she now finds herself in an unforgiving landscape, both vast and alien. The story twines together her earnest and often dangerous escapade, and the mysterious John H, a canyon dweller who possesses an uncanny kinship with horses and an artist’s knack for isolating “beauty from the terror of existence.”
So many streams come together here: archaeology, the ravages and aftermath of World War II, and the grandeur and austerity of eastern Montana. All of it is made personal and compelling by the enigmatic artist, the spirited archaeologist and the canyon itself, a gorge that “snaked and sidled like the forces of wind and water that carved it, twisting this way and that, its sandy floor littered with rocks calved loose and toppled from above.”
The story is written too on a much larger canvas, making intimate the clash between progress and the natural world. “What is the point of owning a Gauguin if you can’t recognize beauty when it’s right in front of you?” Lemay asks the head of the power company. He, on the other hand, regards the canyon and its contents as “a whole lot of nothing.”
While the author’s writing has drawn comparisons to literary giants Wallace Stegner, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison, the book “is its own work, a big, old-fashioned, and important novel,” writes Rick Bass. And Library Journal lauds it as “a bold, beautiful read.”
Brooks, who grew up in the rural foothills of the California Sierras, says he logs “just enough hours as a carpenter to finance an array of interests including writing, reading, hunting, horses, bird dogs, gardening, and cooking.” His writing has appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Big Sky Journal, Montana Quarterly, and Outside, among others.
Painted Horses was published by Grove Atlantic, New York, NY, and sells for $25 hardcover.
– Kristi Niemeyer