"There was death at its beginning, as there would be death again at its end" (Evans 3). But there was also the aesthetic beauty of youth and the countryside, the foreboding stillness and sense of danger, the glimmer of romance and privilege, and a struggle to overcome adversity. The Horse Whisperer expertly weaves such elements into its storyline from start to finish. Few who have seen the movie or read the book could forget its terrifyingly violent opening scenes, in which "forty tons of steel," driven by a tired trucker named Wayne Tanner, collide into two girls on horseback during the winter's first snowfall (Evans 24). One of the girls and her horse are crushed to death. The speeding trucker? en route to make deliveries at a mill via the narrow, country lane? attempts too late to brake after seeing the horses, who are slipping wildly on the ice and down a steep embankment into the road. Grace MacLean, the second girl, survives the accident after losing a leg, but her horse Pilgrim, who is kept alive against all advice, comes to mirror her broken spirit in his seemingly ruined body. Grace's workaholic mother, on the other hand, puts her won't-take-no attitude to work within the family and embarks on an adventure to bring her daughter, the horse, and herself back to a life with meaning. It is the ensuing physical and psychological struggles that make up the backbone of Nicholas Evans' first novel. Having sold 850,000 copies in its initial year of publication, 1995, The Horse Whisperer became a clear bestseller (The Bowker Annual). Just two years later there were one million hardcover copies of the book in print, and over two and a half million paperback copies (Publisher's Weekly: September 15, 1997). The book was then translated into thirty-six languages. By almost any standard it was quite a success, particularly for a first novel. But what was it about this romantic story that appealed to so many readers?
Most obviously, there are the common aspects of the book: themes often found in bestsellers such as love, money, risk, and struggle. Then there were the uncommon aspects: the fact that it is a first novel and most of all, the preceding media frenzy that made it an object of controversy and interest before it was published. Many would argue that it was this advance media attention? inspired before the book was even finished by the sale of its movie and American publication rights for over six million dollars combined? that made it a bestseller (The New York Times Book Review: September 24, 1995). There does seem to be a certain class of novels which become bestsellers based on media hype, whether from timely cultural relevance or political reaction. The Satanic Verses, by famed author Salmon Rushdie, would fit into just such a category. The Horse Whisperer, however much detractors want it to fit into this same genre, does not. It is true that the main standard by which a bestseller is measured is its sales figures, and it is true that the media intrigue before the actual appearance of The Horse Whisperer did most likely increase sales. Yet it is also true that this number-crunching obsession has created a sort of mocking suspicion of the actual quality, or lack thereof, of bestselling works; the result is that the bestseller has often been taken out of context and held up to highly literary standards more appropriate for, say, the Western Canon. The consequence has been a competitive divide with literary academics or private intellectuals on one side, and public intellectuals or those who are willing to write what makes a buck on the other side. This superficial competition doesn't do much for either group and tends to obscure the possibility of there being some genuine value in bestsellers. It may not be the value a scholar seeks, but there is something to be said about a book that sells millions of copies to modern readers who not only have many other entertainment options, but options which are more convenient and less expensive, from TV to the internet. Most bestsellers aren't exactly Shakespeare, but they still represent one of the few remaining forms of the written word which modern consumers want. Many of them do tap into classic themes and struggles, but they do it with a modern style that is less taxing and more pleasurably page-turning, so that the genre of the bestseller represents a sort of hybrid form of literature, one of the few to be read outside the classroom these days. The Horse Whisperer falls into this popular, hybrid category. The media attention it received may have helped its sales figures, but more importantly, the novel embodies patterns found throughout popular, twentieth century fiction. In The Horse Whisperer, Evans adopts a style in his use of imagery, characterization, and theme, which connects readers with epic ideas like the American dream while also tapping into personal struggles with which they can identify.
Evans' masterful use of imagery is our first introduction to this insightful style? insightful for offering modern readers what they are hungry for and can no longer expect to find in every novel, something beautiful or sensually pleasing. Most notably, the author uses detailed descriptions of country landscapes and nature to evoke the epic, effectively creating a connection between readers and a larger force beyond them. This technique adds historical or almost religious overtones to the story, giving it in places a more powerful perspective reminiscent of the picturesque found in eighteenth century novels: "It was in America that horses first roamed. A million years before the birth of man, they grazed the vast plains of wiry grass and crossed to other continents over bridges of rock soon severed by retreating ice. They first knew man as the hunted knows the hunter?." (Evans 105). Against this backdrop, Evans' tale becomes more than the story of one woman or one family. The use of epic imagery adds a kind of credibility, another layer through which one family's story becomes attached to something larger, to a history related to them and yet greater. This grander scheme seems to bring The Horse Whisperer somewhat closer to the content of many "classic" novels, which tend to be tied more directly to events of great, objective and historical import than the modern novels that often take one person's psyche as the main event. Evans particularly uses the natural landscape of the West to unite his characters' internal struggles with the struggles of those that went before them. On their way to the ranch in Montana, for instance, Grace and her mother Annie make a pit stop at Little Bighorn Battlefield. It is there that they get into an argument and release all their pent up frustration and sadness in a sort of climactic, combined breakdown, which drives Annie from the car into a solitary walk down the road. She finds herself at the top of a hill and begins to cry. "On this hillside, on a June day in 1876," writes Evans, "George Armstrong Custer and more than two hundred soldiers were cut to pieces by those they had sought to slaughter. Their names were etched in the stone. Annie turned to look down the hill at the scattered white tombstones. They cast long shadows in the last pale reach of the sun. She stood there and looked out across the vast, rolling plains of wind-flattened grass that stretched away from this sorrowful place to a horizon where sorrow was infinite. And she started to weep" (Evans 177). In this passage, the author does much more than describe the scene. He also connects Annie's suffering to those that have passed through before her, to death, the infinite, and the appropriately desolate and oppressive plains before her. This imagery adds depth to Annie's pain and makes it seem somehow more legitimate, more important, by framing it against history and a vast landscape that also captures or reflects her mood. Evans' use of the epic not only lends the narrative a certain authority felt by readers, but also makes their job both easier and more quickly fulfilling. With his imagery, he makes the connections for us; this way, we don't put the book down and feel unsettled by a missing, emotional link which we are then compelled to seek for ourselves. Instead the ways in which Annie and Grace's struggle is infinite and important are already packaged for us, and presented within the text itself.
The author's ease with descriptions of the physical or natural carries over to his technique of characterization. He often uses physical descriptions of the characters to reflect internal or emotional states, fulfilling a natural logic we might wish we could find in reality and which reassures us: the outside matches the inside. Grace's father Robert, for instance, is presented as a sturdy, reliable, no-nonsense figure. As a lawyer, his job seems to reflect his objectively stable, rational, and naturally successful personality. Robert is so practical and straightforward that even when it comes to the bedroom, this aspect of his persona is revealed: "?he'd always believed sex, like the law, was best practiced with all due diligence" (Evans 37). It is fittingly reliable, then, that his outward appearance matches this description, too: "his [wardrobe] was all button-down collars and corduroy ?. It was L.L. Bean" (Evans 37). In a similar connection between the internal and external, Annie is described, while dating her soon-to-be-husband as "the Sex Pistols," with a wardrobe "full of black leather and safety pins," which seems to accurately capture her fiery, emotional and more daring personality (Evans 37). Again, Evans has made things fit together so well that we have no work left to do. The characters look like they feel, wear clothes that describe their personas. In a similar vein, the author extends this kind of metaphor or stylistic detail to the extent that physical traits describe or match the internal struggles around which the book really revolves. The amputation of Grace's leg, for example, has an obvious correlation to her loss of spirit, confidence, and happiness. Tellingly, her physical pain and difficulties in walking with her new prosthetic leg ease noticeably as the story wears on and her heart begins to heal. On the ranch, where she begins to feel herself useful and loved once again, Grace uses her cane less and less frequently. As her admiration for the horse whisperer, Tom Booker, grows and as she starts to repair her resentment against her mother, she also starts walking with less of a limp, and eventually riding. And it is her final physical triumph of the book, riding her own horse again at its close, which marks the completion of her emotional healing. She celebrates this journey at the party given in her honor after she rides Pilgrim, and it is clear that Grace has not only learned to walk and ride again with a fake leg, but she has regained her self-acceptance and image of herself. As she feels after the party, "the image she'd had of herself was thrilling. She could whirl, she could shimmy, she could even jive. ? She could do anything? For the first time in her new life, perhaps even her whole life, she felt beautiful" (Evans 424). As she feels beautiful she becomes functional on the outside, too, and in this way Grace's character, like her parents', fulfills a certain expectation or hope that never seems to pan out so reliably in real life? when we feel beautiful, we look beautiful. Within the world of The Horse Whisperer this fantasy becomes possible and offers readers a slight suspension of disbelief that is found in any piece of literature which millions of people around the world are willing to buy. Modern readers may be criticized for their glib cynicism, their modern blasé entitlement, but more than anyone they need a little fantasy escape, too, and can appreciate this fictional world in which you can look beautiful and be successful if you feel beautiful and whole inside.
The novel is definitely about finding beauty, and through its themes more than any other vehicle, we are offered the possibility of doing just that, however fantastical, in our lives and in the book. What Evans does most successfully? and what makes his first novel a bestseller more dynamically than any other single factor? is to choose themes which everyone can relate to and therefore have a stake in: romantic love, marital conflict and sadness, motherhood versus career, loss and renewal. The author weaves these old themes into a story with a new and uniquely American twist. It is the American Dream of hope and rebirth in a new life, but this time it is for the already rich, white American rather than the immigrant or those on the outskirts of society. It is the same story, though, of seeking a new way of existing and of understanding this existence in relation to others. It is a story of forgiving, trying over, going West, finding solace in nature, rebuilding a life that has been ruined, and overcoming major adversity to do so. The entire MacLean family is on this quest and ultimately is successful, albeit in a somewhat odd way (in the ending of the book, as opposed to the movie, Tom Booker is killed by a wild stallion, but Grace perseveres in her new health through this further conflict. Annie also sticks by her family, but they only are brought together again by the birth of another child she thought she could never have, which is probably Tom's). Most of all, though, The Horse Whisperer offers the modern reader a vision of the possibility for renewal many yearn for in their own lives. Against all odds Grace gets better, the horse lives, and they essentially return to their initial status as the book opens: beautiful and privileged, making tracks across the virgin, snowy landscape. In an American ideal, though, she does come out less innocent, and much tougher. She is a survivor, and the entire story seems worth the effort because of the almost-Hollywood ending that allows us to imbue the hardship with some kind of inherent meaning, since everyone learned something, healed their heart and came out better people. The book also offers a sort of carpe-diem attitude many find impossible to actually live, but idealize in their minds. Running against our somewhat American and tired attachment to material success, there is a strain in the book that shows us it is okay to up and leave your fancy executive position in Manhattan and romance it under the stars of Montana. In real life we have practical concerns such as social attachments, finances, and reputation. But in the book, Annie gets the luxury of leaving it all behind, doing precisely what she wants to in the moment of her passion. Tom Booker's father summarizes this philosophy best, crystallizing the great fantasy and promise of the book? both slightly possible and impossible within our own lives? which attracts us most and gives this book value to modern readers, despite the dubious critics of the very genre of bestseller: " ?I guess that's all forever is ? just one long trail of nows. And I guess all you can do is try and live one now at a time without getting too worked up about the last now or the next now' " (Evans 123).
Evans, Nicholas. The Horse Whisperer. New York: Dell, 1996 ; Publisher's Weekly: September 15, 1997 (www.publishersweekly.com) ; The Bowker Annual. 41st edition: 1996. New Providence, New Jersey: Bowker/A. Reed Reference Publishing Co., 1996 ; The New York Times Book Review: September 24, 1995 (available online through Lexis-Nexis).