Thursday, August 11, 2011

Horse Heaven

(NOTE: This review was originally posted on May 2, 2011.)

The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby will be this Saturday, May 7. Billed as "the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports," this event is steeped in tradition, from the racing silks, to the elaborate garland of roses presented to the winner, to drinking mint juleps and singing "My Old Kentucky Home." Derby Day is also a fashion show, where women's hats rival those seen at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton last week.

For all of that, the real stars of the show are the horses. Have you ever wondered what it takes to breed and train a race horse? I knew next to nothing about the subject until I read Jane Smiley's book, "Horse Heaven." I picked the book up on a whim when browsing at a local bookstore. I remembered reading Smiley's book, "Moo," years ago and how much I enjoyed the characters she created.

Although I wasn't sure I was that interested in horse racing, I thought that if anyone could create a compelling story about this sport, it would be Smiley. I was not disappointed. In this book she has created not one story, but several, giving the reader many views into this world of high hopes, high stakes and frequent heartbreak. You see it through the eyes of trainers, owners, riders, bettors, and you hear from a woman who communicates telepathically with horses.

Of particular interest to me is Smiley's take on what a race horse thinks about his world. Beyond what might be called "horse sense," she imagines how a horse experiences his circumstances and decides what to do. (She also takes a brief journey into the mind of one owner's little dog, which gave me a new and slightly more positive perspective on those yappy creatures.) As the stories of each of her horse "characters" unfold, individual personalities emerge, contrasting with those of the humans along side them.

The business of horse racing is complex, demanding and very expensive. Smiley shows us this world in detail, from the tedium of day to day care of the horses to the coddling of their owners. The view isn't always pretty, but it is fascinating.

Above all,  this book is a series of stories about relationships: relationships between spouses, lovers, family members, co-workers, business associates, and between humans and animals. It is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, although it has elements of both.  If you are looking for an absorbing read, I'd say put your money down on "Horse Heaven" -- it's a pretty safe bet.