Friday, January 26, 2007

HORSES THEY RODE by Sid Gustafson

1. Brakeman: The ride with the realbear
2. The Horse Medicine Man: Drinking with Bubbles
3. Outdoorsmen: Browning alley drinking
4. Red Man: Jesse James takes them to the ranch
5. Journeymen: Mabel and recovery
6. Studman: Rip, racehorses, and the son, Paddy
7. Grassman: Riding with Paddy
8. Other Men: Continental drift
9. Woman: Gretchen and cows
10. Wolfman: The wolf who drank with the cows
11. Lady’s Man: Making love
12. Ranch Man: Rip the boss
13. Lineman: Struck by lightning
14. Hiwayman: Driving to Spokane
15. Marathon Man: The race track
16. Legman: Doc the adulterer
17. Gentleman: Dealing with Willow
18. Newman: Wisdom from Bo
19. Milkman: Trish
20. Hiwayman: Homebound
21. Mystery Man: Nan comes aboard
22. Fireman: Back at the ranch
23. Middleman: Between wolf and dog, living in Palookaville
24. Gambling Man: Horserace
25. Mountain Man: Calling from summit
26. Weatherman: Rain and waiting
27. Horsemen: The race
28. Earthman: Burying Bubbles
29. Man: The Horse Medicine Bundle

Above is a list of the chapter titles of “Horses They Rode” by Sid Gustafson. It is immediately clear that this book is about what it is to be a MAN. It is also clear, even on the surface, that this is a Montana book. Sid grew up not far from where I’m living in Valier, the publisher is in Montana, the story happens mostly in Montana, and much of it is about Blackfeet, whom Sid can describe gracefully and honestly. So what is it REALLY about? I’d say it was about what it takes to be a mensch in a modern world that presses competition, toughness, ownership and emotional isolation as the measure of men. The final message is that real men are about nurturing: caring for those around them whether people, animals or grass. A natural conclusion for an author who is a veterinarian and a father.

One of the blurb reviews (by Neil McMahon) says that when he first began to read he was “taken aback, then disturbed.” After fifty pages he was drawn in and “humbled.” I had the same reaction, probably because the first chapter was written as a short story (much like Judy Blunt’s “Breaking Clean,” first chapter) and then the novel grew out of it. The first chapter is a picaresque, an exploit, a rather unlikely tale about a guy who jumps a freight out of Spokane in order to get back to the Blackfeet Rez and who is joined by a grizzly craving wheat residue in his boxcar. They don’t ship wheat in boxcars. Still, the grizzly, which in Blackfeet language is called a “real bear” in the same way that buffalo are “real meat,” acts like an actual bear.

The hero acts like 007 and climbs to the top of the train, then works his way back intending to get into the caboose, but this is after they stopped towing cabooses. There’s just a little digitized blinking box. The bear is “she” and Wendell’s reaction is to pray to the Virgin Mary. This discussion of “real men” is going to include relationships to the fe-male. And his daughter, rather than a lover or mother, is the key. But in the second chapter, Wendell is drinking at the Browning depot with an old Indian friend, so this is going to include red-men as well. But the Indian is not the key -- it’s the six-year-old daughter who brings the real delight and the son who brings the moral measure in that twelve-year-old straightforward way.

The plot is simple and the ending is pretty predictable, but Sid’s telling of the story, once he’s on the way, is extraordinary, laced with poetry and mythology, geology and anthropology. He’s as comfortable with image as with science. What he does NOT do is agonize over psychology. He’s hurting, he comes home, home is a place where everyone nurtures and heals each other, he finds his children, and he buries his good friend, a final kind of nurturing -- imperfect as things can be. Simple.

The language is extraordinary: lumpy, sometimes puzzling, grammar every which way, vernacular and poetry blurring into each other, medical terms when needed, fancy references (St. Wendell is the patron saint of wanderers and wolves.) It’s the sort of writing that makes some people sniff that it ought to have had a good editor -- and other people laugh that proper editing would ruin it! Sid is an original. (Montana NEEDS originals! Our supply is low.)

Nevertheless, since I’ve been in this country (off and on) almost as long as Sid’s been alive, and happen to know his family sort of from a distance, he came by all this stuff honestly, genetically and through nurturing. His sibs are equally extraordinary because the parents are larger-the-life, Vikings, massive and extravagant, and yet benign, inclusive. They don’t crush everything around them as some people in Montana certainly try to do.

But neither are the people in this book easily captured. The crushers want insurance, ownership, a sure thing. Sid’s book outlines an intimacy that is tolerant, allowing people to stay individual, keep their boundaries, make their own decisions. He’s willing to take chances. A real man meets his obligations but it appears that they center mostly on fatherhood, not good old dependable, chained-up husbandhood. There’s no husbandman on this list of chapters. Maybe he’ll explain in the next book. Sign me up in advance.

One of the key things that struck me is that though the main character is a veterinarian, there’s almost nothing here about drugs or surgery. (Sid’s practice emphasises natural medicine.) Healing is “hands-on,” rubbing, feeling, smoothing, connecting. When I was doing my hospital chaplaincy, a woman was dying. One of her symptoms was aching legs. Her husband stood by the bed hour-after-hour, patiently rubbing her legs which she said helped more than any medicine. It was about love. So is this book.

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