It’s 1938, and ranch-raised 19-year old Bud Frazer’s family lost first his sister in a riding accident and then their ranch, and after a couple of years following the rodeo circuit he heads for Hollywood to find work riding horses in Westerns.
There are a lot of different things going on here, just for starters the real life Bud lived on Echol Creek Ranch growing up and the vastly different version that Hollywood commemorates in film.
You never saw a movie cowboy hauling salt up to the high pastures or building fence around a haystack or helping a heifer figure out what to do with her first calf. Those movies were full of bank robberies and stage holdups, feuds, galloping posses, murderous Indians, and claim jumpers–nothing I ever saw growing up.
There is the friendship between Bud and Lily, a budding screenwriter, who meet on the bus to Los Angeles and begin a friendship that despite differences and difficulties lasts a lifetime.
I was used to girls who tried to make you think you were smarter than them even if you weren’t, but Lily never in her life cared whether a boy knew she was smarter than he was.
It’s the story of the Depression and its effect on the lives of people struggling to get by, it’s the story of producers who will do anything to get the shot, including kill horses and the stuntmen who ride them, and it is especially the story of Bud and the guilt he feels over his sister’s death, and trying to atone for that perceived sin. She fell from her horse and Bud spends the next three years falling from horses on the rodeo circuit and in Hollywood. It wasn’t an unconscious choice of profession.
…that last week in Arizona, after the lancer charge, I lay in bed every night seeing, over and over, horses and men falling through a veil of dust and shattered glass, turning over in my head my hatred of Cab, and then in the long hours of darkness coming around slowly to knowing I’d been looking for something like this to happen, a big fall — maybe even hoping for it. And knowing if I’d been hurt or killed I would deserve what I’d been given. A settling of accounts for getting my sister killed.
What I find most compelling about this book is the voice, very similar to the voice Gloss used in The Hearts of Horses. It’s an almost canter-like cadence, a sort of run-on, hypnotic rhythm. I even imagine hearing Bud speaking in a monotone.
The pinto whirled and reared up, pawing the steep slope, and I pulled my hand back and the horse came too high–I saw it was too high. I slipped off his tail end, my right hand still clenching the reins which might be why the horse came above me, looming dark. I landed on my feet and tried to throw myself to the side, but I lost my footing on the slope. The ground or the horse rose up and hit me–a white flash behind my eyes–and then we were both sliding downhill, a long slid it seemed at the time, but maybe not more than thirty or forty feet before I hit a bit of flat shelf and the horse rolled over me–incredible red-hot wires of pain flashing through my hips and my legs. The pinto kept going all the way down the hill and came to his feet at the bottom without a goddamn mark on him.
See? The drama of these events is all in the reader’s mind. Bud is just telling his story here. Despair is Bud’s constant companion and it feels that much more agonizing when told in this emotionless, matter-of-fact way. As his father says
“Things just happen and it’s nobody’s fault.” After another pause, he said, “You ranch long enough, you make peace with what you can’t help.”