Gaffney has a breathtaking and at times nearly otherworldly ability to read horses by closely studying their bodies, and then to capture what she sees with her prose ... Memoir is not journalism, but since the mode of this book is one of intimate observation, the use of composite characters feels a little dismaying; if you read that author’s note and then follow along as Gaffney draws characters like Tony, Randy, Eliza and Joey with tremendous sensitivity and sympathy, it brings you up short to realize that in fact there may be no Joey, the defeated young man who forms a bond with the wounded horse, Luna, after she watches him rescue a litter of feral kittens ... A gift for documenting infinitesimal gradations of fear, anger or sheer sensory joy animates Gaffney’s scenes of the interactions of the residents and the horses ... But the book moves sometimes disjointedly between these deeply perceptive parts and Gaffney’s emphasis on what she describes as her own brokenness ... you can’t help wanting Gaffney to stay with the horses, with her truly transcendent writing about them and their world, honoring them as creatures with exquisitely refined and attuned senses, and a silent yet visible language that will reward those who learn to read it.
Gaffney pulls off the impressive feat of translating horses and humans. She creates lyricism through experience, landscape, and empathy. Not only does she avoid the often cringe-worthy tropes we see regarding horses, but she also swerves away from stereotyping the incarcerated population in the United States ... As a trainer, Gaffney brings some hard-knock knowledge to her writing. There is a raw physicality in each scene featuring a horse ... each character is portrayed with humanity and a deep complexity ... Her disclosure and the quietness of her writing are a refreshing change from the dominant narrative that American horse culture is loud, deeply conservative, and heteronormative ... also a book steeped in place. Even though it loves the West, it refuses to look away from the region’s hard bits. The high desert landscape is never center stage, yet it is always present. The dust and extreme sun seep through the scenes in a way unique to those who write well about that part of the country ... The healing here is hard-won, subtle, and small. And that makes it all the more miraculous.
In the author’s note of this fascinating memoir, Ginger Gaffney lets readers know exactly what’s to come. The dialogue is drawn from memory, and yes, she’s made some character composites of the more than 50 residents at the alternative prison ranch where she volunteered during the year and a half the book covers. But some of the most compelling characters here don’t speak in words: They are horses. And in Gaffney’s book, they come alive.