Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West
by Deanne Stillman
(available on Amazon)

First things first: this was not the book I thought it was. I picked it up out of curiosity - it had quite a few accolades on the cover, was by a talented writer, and in all honesty I began it with a sinking heart. For some years now, I have had in mind the project of researching and writing a book about the place the mustang holds in the American imagination.

This was not that book. This was not even close to that book. In fact? This was not really a book about mustangs at all, save for perhaps the last 1/4 of it.

That's not to say it was a bad book, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was quite a good book: well-written, thoughtful, far-ranging, and a good read. Here was my biggest problem: this book made no attempt to define or distinguish the "mustang," which is to say the distinctly wild (or feral) horse that lives without human interaction or mediation in the American west.

Stillman's title and subtitle imply that she will write a history of those horses. That's not what she did. Instead, this book is more accurately a history of the horse in general in the American west. Which is fine! She does a nice light nonfiction job of that, telling stories about the horses belonging to early conquistadors, about cavalry horses, about cow ponies and cattle drives, about the horses in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, about movie horses. She clearly (despite her personal history) doesn't know a whole lot about horses, but she does know a whole lot about people, and does a really nice job in telling her stories.

So while I spent the first 3/4 of the book annoyed at her lack of distinction (mustang != any horse out west != free-roaming stock horses != any horse that she has decided fits a certain physical type), when I forced myself to step back and think "this is really about horses as companions in creating the history of the west" I liked the book much much better.

And then when she spends the last 1/4 actually talking about mustangs, actually parsing out the history of the wild/feral horses in the west in the mid to latter part of the 20th century? She does a really good job. Instead of an enjoyable but not gripping read it became a gripping and depressing and involved read. I couldn't put down the last 80 pages. It took me 2 weeks to read the first 240.

And in the end? I'm glad she didn't write the book I wanted to write, because that means it's still out there for me to tackle.

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