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Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Painted Horses’: In Montana, the future vs. the sacred past

Malcolm Brooks’ evocative debut novel, “Painted Horses,” set in 1950s Montana, tells the story of an archaeologist whose discoveries may delay construction of a large dam. Brooks appears Friday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Malcolm Brooks

The author of “Painted Horses” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or


‘Painted Horses’

by Malcolm Brooks

Grove Press, 370 pp., $26

When a mentor places an ancient marble ear into Catherine’s hand, the budding archaeologist knows without looking that it is “a part of some bigger thing.”

That’s much the way Montana-based author Malcolm Brooks unfolds the story in “Painted Horses,” his debut novel, offering fragments of his characters and later building them into “some bigger thing,” namely an engrossing story.

Catherine is an archaeologist whose East Coast family steered her toward a music career, Julliard and then to England and Cambridge on a Fulbright. But she has always been interested in the past and reminders of it dug from the earth. For the mentor offering the marble ear, Catherine is an easy recruit.

Success on an archaeological dig in postwar London leads to a job with the Smithsonian to explore a canyon in Montana that may soon be flooded for a hydropower dam unless something sacred, something important, is found there.

John H., as he is known throughout the novel, is a painter of horses. He paints horses not only on canvas but on the horses themselves, spraying on his signature silhouette of a human hand. He is the son of a morose loser, a horse trainer who confronts truant officers with a shotgun when they come looking for 12-year-old John H.

Rather than staying around to see what the school’s plans are, John H. runs off — on a horse, of course — and eventually ends up in Montana.

There’s also a guide hired by the power company to show Catherine around and/or keep an eye on her; a young Native American woman Catherine engages on her own to help her, and an assortment of well-drawn minor characters who do their part to draw out “stories in the fragments,” as Catherine’s mentor says of archaeology.

These fragments are scattered over World War II Europe, postwar London and the American West of the mid-1950s.

Together they form a sprawling story about horses, Montana, Native American culture, archaeology and the development of the West. Brooks displays accessible knowledge of all these things, down to the most mundane particulars. The sucker rods on a windmill-driven pump squeak, the blades click and water pours into a wooden tank — and the reader is right there with John H. as he tightens the cinch on his saddle and moves on.

Brooks’ similes also open up his story to the reader: A backpack bounces on Catherine’s back like a tourist on a camel; a parched tongue feels like a fat slug in her mouth.

That grounding in things believable is only disrupted in the culmination of the novel, an emerging struggle between power, with its promise of a better future, and the “unearthing a bit of ourselves” that comes with finding what has been held sacred in the past. The power people turn out to be far nastier than what would be expected from Brooks’ sketchy rendering of them.

But Brooks’ prose rings true and borders on poetic when he tackles the biggest things in his novel: themes of love, what one is willing to fight for, what to give up for something held more dear and, in the end, what it takes to recover from what has been lost.

John B. Saul, a former Times editor, fell in love with Montana while teaching journalism at the University of Montana. He never misses a chance to get back to the Treasure State.

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