WINNER OF THE 2019 DZANC PRIZE FOR FICTION Call It Horses Jessie van Eerden March 2021 HC: 978-1-950539-25-3 256 pages Purchase now
“On a notepad from the Dollar Store I write you,” begins this novel that is one ardent, unending letter, and I think of some lines from Franz Wright’s poem “P.S.” that the author, who’s a friend of mine, pointed me toward years ago:
I'm writing to you all the time, I'm writing with both hands, day and night
The letter we get to read in Call It Horses is written by a woman named Frankie, restless with questions, and it’s addressed to a woman she hasn’t ever met, her aunt Mave’s one-time teacher and lover, Ruth. Frankie and Mave live in a factory town in the mountains of West Virginia, where Frankie works as a janitor and Mave drives a school bus. Ruth is a linguistics professor in the Northeast and travels the world for research. From stories and letters, Frankie knows enough of Ruth to experience her as a presence, a sympathetic soul she can reveal herself to: “I wrote you when I was a child, Ruth, because you heard my mind.” Letters of this kind, conversations with another person who becomes a second self, can help you hear certain truths about yourself.
But Call It Horses is not only an epistolary novel, it’s a road-trip novel, too. Feeling stuck in their lives, bogged down by the swampy West Virginia summer, Frankie and Mave long for a new landscape, one that will clear their minds and clarify their hearts. They set out for the New Mexico desert that inspired Georgia O’Keefe, and bring with them another woman, Nan, whom Frankie has reasons to dislike, and a dog, Ellis, who smells up the car. One of these women is dying, one of them suffers domestic abuse, one of them, Frankie, wonders whether she’s capable of love, whether she is too solitary, too sealed off from life. None of them is satisfied by what seems to be asked of her (be pretty, settle down, be churchgoing). All of them want their lives to be larger. But there is friction; barbs fly between the front and back seats, and Frankie is herself trapped by her judgment of Nan, Nan who married Frankie’s adolescent love, and the wound throbs. Being stuck for hours on the road together, though, in their aching bodies, forces them into an intimacy that slowly softens them and blurs their borders. This is road trip as spiritual trial.
Along the way, there is a baptism in a motel pool, lewd graffiti (Nan’s) scrawled at rest stops, the need to wash the dog that sends the three women naked into a lake, a heartrending ride on a horse. There is all of Frankie’s life on this trip and its complicated intersections with Nan’s and Mave’s: losses and disappointments, and yet also, much making, much creativity, much canning and baking and fashioning of words and beads and paint, and a women’s cooperative Frankie starts, where such offerings are shared. Frankie describes a Coop gathering as: an “uttering like prayer, a way to connect to the life inside our lives.”
An intensely lyrical and image-rich writer, Jessie Van Eerden gives us both life and the life inside life; the outer and inner resonate on her pages. Call It Horses is a meditation on utterance, on language. Words like the ones Frankie uses to speak to Ruth in her letter, yes, and also words that originate, that call things into being. And not only words, but we see how actions, wounds, landscapes utter, too, and communicate with the soul. Reading this book, I am brought to a place of ecstatic wondering, that the mingling of body and spirit is so everywhere present, that words conjure something real, that there is now a being named Frankie alive in my consciousness whose thoughts I respond to. And when I hear her voice a wish I recognize, “I want aloneness and also to be less alone—that fat, divergent greed,” I feel the relief words can bring. How they can give longing a shape, how they can hold contradiction, how they can satisfy without forcing resolution. How they allow us to speak and listen both—as Frankie does in the letter she is writing all the time, with both hands, day and night—and be enlarged. By the end, Frankie’s heart is wide open as the desert.
Kirsten Giebutowski lives in New Hampshire where she works at her town library and edits books.