In small-town West Virginia in the 1980s, three women—a niece, her cancer-stricken aunt, and new friend—take a road trip to the Southwest. Frankie records the journey in letters to her aunt Mave's dead lover, a linguist named Ruth, slowly revealing the ruins of herself and her fellow passengers.
The voice of a bright, stunted, 35-year-old orphan named Frankie pulls me smack into Jessie van Eerden’s Call It Horses and does not release me until well after the book’s last word. That voice sounds rasped, imperfect, and running the full register ... van Eerden brings her reader right inside her ordinary, yet remarkable, protagonist’s life and mind. The reader experiences the ride in sensuous detail, from a closer vantage point than many authors can achieve ... The scenes Frankie shares are rich and immediate, and the reader more lives Frankie’s rural West Virginia life than learns of it ... Van Eerden builds suspense using the interplay between the road trip and its backstory. She doles out a tantalizing tidbit, a curiosity, in one story, before revealing the answer, often in the other. The reader glimpses relationship dynamics that then emerge into clear sight and, finally, crescendo. Van Eerden has crafted characters so rich that the reader seems to be meeting real people in these pages ... Van Eerden writes so lyrically that Call It Horses often feels like poetry or music ... Symbols and metaphors pulse a profound, beautiful, almost archetypal energy throughout the book: beets, caves, birds, and, of course, horses.
As in any good road novel, the characters’ plans and what actually happens part ways early on, creating the actual story ... With...letters as the frame and the road trip as a pretext, Call it Horses entwines anecdotes, facts, and instances that together give life to all of small-town Caudell. Marvelously, the back-and-forth between the past, with its innumerable tangents and characters, and the present, with its single, straight line of highway, explains how Mave (with her oxygen tank) and Nan (with her bruises) end up in that Oldsmobile with Frankie, hightailing it out of a place so full of life and story. One of the novel’s many successes is how much it packs into a relatively short narrative ... the novel gently but insistently asks us to consider the pure ways, the possible and impossible ways, the best ways and the worst ways, to signify love.
... an incredibly rewarding read ... its prose...is thick and intentional, each word carefully selected. It requires a slowing down of the reader to fully absorb ... Her details summon West Virginia brilliantly ... Van Eerden’s slow drip of information about the characters is equally impressive. At the beginning, readers know very little...but we want to know, almost desperately. Van Eerden feeds answers one at a time, in such a way that each morsel feels revelatory and obvious at once ... Van Eerden digs into cliches of Appalachian women to show their beauty and complexity ... this book has bodied forth both West Virginia and its characters. Frankie tells her reader, 'I write you to stay alive and…I write you, still, to become myself.' Van Eerden has gifted us with a novel to read for the same reasons.