Until I was 12 years old we lived in the city, where our house was a short walk to two movie theaters that screened Saturday matinees for kids, matinees comprised largely of 1930s and 1940s westerns—I saw Roy Rogers before he came to television, saw John Wayne in his early horse operas before John Ford chose him for “Stagecoach” and made him a movie star. Then we moved out to the countryside and I didn’t go to the matinee movies any more, but by then I had begun reading my dad’s cowboy novels, the westerns of Zane Gray, Ernest Haycox, Max Brand; and around that same time our family made the first of several trips back to Texas to visit my dad’s family. So I was in the back seat of the car absorbed in Western novels as we made those long drives across the landscape of the West—one memorable time reading a story set on the Green River in Wyoming as we were driving alongside the Green River in Wyoming. And I suppose it was the coming together of those things—the movies, the books, the trips to Texas—at a pivotal time in my life that has drawn me so often to think and to write about the West.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the traditional western formula is a men’s domain, the women largely missing or barely visible, and their roles in the story almost always passive; to get lost in those books and films I always had to imagine I was a boy. But I was in my 30s when I became serious about writing, and by then I had left that pretense behind. I wanted to write what I could not find on the library shelves: a western novel more along the lines of A.B. Guthrie than Louis L’Amour, but with a heroic woman at the center, a woman who was not the daughter or the sister of the homesteader but the homesteader herself. That book of course was The Jump-Off Creek. And it was only in writing it that I discovered a real woman holding up the center of a traditional western story cannot help but change the story, push it toward truth-telling and away from myth.
Our western history was taken over very early by storytellers and filmmakers more interested in the adventurous romance than the historical facts. So although the real history of the West is a communal history—think of Lewis and Clark, the Texas trail drives, the covered wagon journeys—our cowboy hero is most often a solitary wanderer who lacks family ties and a childhood history, has no siblings, never a wife or children. He solves every problem, no matter how complicated, with his fists or a gun. And that violent, tough, rootless cowboy has become for many of us the model for who we think we ought to be. The Western myth informs and shapes American culture, our politics, our beliefs, our values.
In all my work I have tried to stay close to the values of the myth—the courage, the self-reliance, the toughness—but tell stories in which those values are informed and mindful; stories that include women; stories that nudge the myth in the direction of truth. Lydia Sanderson in The Jump-Off Creek came West for the same reasons men did—for the adventure, for independence, for freedom; and she came alone. But she brought with her a complicated family history, and she gathered around her slowly a community of neighbors who supported each other in all ways. Martha Lessen in The Hearts of Horses rode into the Elwha Valley just as Shane and other western heroes have done in the iconic first scenes of countless novels and films; but at the end she didn’t ride out again.
Falling From Horses is told as a recollection by Bud Frazer, who is Martha Lessen’s son. In 1938, when he was 19 years old, Bud went to Hollywood to become a stunt rider for the movies, and the year he spent there comprises the greater part of the story; but the novel also steps back to the 1920s and 30s, his childhood with his parents and his sister on a ranch in Southern Oregon. Thus, the heart of Falling From Horses is a binary of truth and lies—the truths of ranching life in the West, the genuine dangers and violence and tragic accident, the rewards and solace that are a natural part of that life, set alongside the lies told in western films, overflowing as they are with spurious danger and concocted violence, and made with so much behind-the-scenes cruelty.
It was hard to write about cruelty to horses, callousness toward men, the accidental death of a child: the zone of sweetness in Falling From Horses may be smaller than in any of my other work. But I believe strongly that storytelling can and should help us witness ourselves as we really are in the world, and also think in fresh ways about ourselves as we might become. And it seems to me that anyone who writes about the West has a responsibility to seek out the real heroism of ordinary lives. And to always be nudging the myth toward truth.
Meet Molly Gloss, one of the 2015 PNBA Book Award Winners, a previous PNBA Award winner, a fourth-generation Oregonian, and an Oregon Book Award winner, at her award presentation ceremony at Broadway Books in Portland, Friday March 6.