Metaphor of Loss

Molly Gloss’ Falling from Horses and the American West

The title of her new book is Falling from Horses, Oregon author Molly Gloss clarifies, not Falling off Horses. The preposition might seem to be a fine distinction, but Gloss says the title is meant as a metaphor — when you say falling off a horse, it is just about falling off a horse, she says. But there is “something subtle in the use of the other preposition, a more complicated question of not just the physical act of falling off a horse,” but instead a metaphor of “falling away” — falling away not only from horses but also from the heroism inherent in the cowboy mythology of the West.

Falling from Horses is both a Northwest novel and a novel of that mythic American West. Bud Frazer grows up on an Eastern Oregon ranch, and not long after the loss of his young sister Mary Claudine — a loss he links to horses — he decides to travel to Hollywood to make it as a stunt-riding movie cowboy. Bud sells his saddle, takes his cowboy hat and spurs and gets on a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles. On the bus he meets up with Lily Shaw, a small fierce woman with her own dreams of a future in Hollywood.

The disappearance of Mary Claudine is no spoiler. Gloss lets the reader know about it early on, before we fully know the little girl. As the reader gets to know, and like, Mary Claudine through Bud’s tales of her childhood, you know all the while she will be gone. “I didn’t want to tease readers with that,” Gloss says, “I wanted to let readers know right away so it didn’t come as a huge shock and let the story of how that happened spool out slowly so you can feel that loss.”

Lily is a city girl from Seattle and a character that is entirely different from rural Mary Claudine, yet in her diminutive fierceness and tenacity, she echoes Bud’s lost sibling. After Bud’s year in “hay burners” and cheap Westerns, he and Lily maintain the bond they forged while trying to make it in the movies and see past their glossy images.

Hollywood is more cutthroat to humans and animals alike than the Oregon ranch boy expects. Bud is falling away from horses while also using his skills with the animals to make it in an industry that, in the 1930s, killed them with falls off cliffs and trip wires that broke their legs and necks.

“I could feel the horse’s screams, like violin strings pulled too tight in my chest and the bow scraping harshly across them,” Bud says of a stunt horse with its legs broken after a callous moviemaker has set up a scene destined to kill man and beast to get a good shot, cheaply.

The tale’s perspective moves back and forth from Bud to a more omniscient view of his family, who we first met in Gloss’ earlier novel, Hearts of Horses. That novel brought Gloss herself back to a love of horses. “I grew up in rural Oregon,” she tells EW, and while she never had horses of her own, Gloss was around them and rode in her youth. She later got married, lived in the city and was not near horses at all for 30 years. Hearts of Horses “reawakened my passion for horses” and the sales from the book made it possible for her to get a horse of her own, yielding small details about the animals in Falling from Horses that only a horsewoman gets right.

Though it’s Bud who tells most of the story, strong female characters like Mary Claudine and Lily are not new to Gloss’s repertoire. She won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for “works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore one’s understanding of gender” in 1998 for The Dazzle of Day and again in 2000 for her novel Wild Life.

While Dazzle, a tale of Quakers aboard an “enormous ring-shaped biosphere towed by an immense solar sail” in outer space is comfortably science fiction, calling Wild Life sci fi, she laughs, might annoy some Northwesterners. “I didn’t think of it as science fiction when I wrote it,” she says. The book is the story of a cigar-smoking, sci-fi writing feminist mother of five who travels through Washington’s forests and seemingly falls in with a group of sasquatch — “Mountain Giants” — in the early 1900s.

Wild Life and Falling from Horses are novels of the Northwest’s American West, made up of cattle ranches on the dry east side and the “logging West” on the wet west side. Falling from Horses, like Gloss’s earlier work, is an enthralling tale of life and loss, strong women and mythic characters in a harsh and beautiful country.