Molly Gloss' enchanting fifth novel, The Hearts of Horses, is set in eastern Oregon during the first winter of World War I. Many young men had already left for war duty grinning as if they were going off like tourists to see the Eiffel Tower when Gloss' heroine, Martha Lessen, comes riding down through the Ipsoot Pass, looking for work breaking horses to saddle. Built big and solid as a man and five-eleven in her boots, Martha doesn't break horses, she gentles them, and she tells her first customer that she can gentle most anything that has four feet and a tail. Word of Martha's prowess quickly spreads, and soon she agrees to gentle the horses on a circle of six nearby farms a circle she rides daily, picking up a horse and dropping it off at the next ranch for a day so it gets used to different conditions, always accompanied by her own horse Dolly, who doesn't take any guff and helps settle down the most skittish ones.
The circle route is the perfect vehicle for Gloss to introduce her secondary characters: the ranchers and their families whom the bashful but acutely perceptive Martha meets and befriends as she makes her daily trek. These include George and Louise Bliss, whose son is off to war; the Woodruff sisters, who are borrowing the Bliss' foreman, Henry Frazer; the Romers Reuben, an alcoholic, and Dorothy, his stoic wife who cares for their three young children and is aging fast; and Tom Kandel, who has rapidly spreading cancer. Gloss' family has lived in Oregon for four generations, and she has taken the West as a setting for two previous novels, including the James Tiptree Jr. award winner Wild Life (2000), which also featured an unconventional female protagonist. She draws both her equine and her human characters with equal care, writing in sparse yet lyrical prose. During Kandel's last days, the early morning clucking of his hens seems to him as soft and devotional as an Angelus bell. And as Martha and Henry ride the circle together, they glimpse the dark shapes of cows and horses against the blue-white snow as still as anchored boats on a millpond. Not just a horse story or a tale of the West, Gloss' moving novel addresses themes of war, alcoholism, illness and death, and commitment to the land and a sometimes lonely, often harsh way of life and is a story not soon forgotten.