The God of Animals, set on a horse ranch and stables in the American West, is an amazingly good and original first novel. Kyle has written about horses before: in 2004, her short story “Foaling Season” won a National Magazine Award for Fiction from
The Atlantic Monthly. That short story became this novel’s first chapter. For a relatively young author, Kyle writes with great assurance and authority.
The novel takes place in Desert Valley, Colorado
(Kyle lives in Missoula, Montana). The narrative centers on a young girl, Alice Winston, and her dysfunctional although quite loveable family and its horses. Alice, 12, has an older sister, Nona, who has recently run away with and married a rodeo star and has dropped off the map. She had been a great horsewoman and the apple of her father’s eye. Their father, Joe, gives riding lessons, breeds and raises horses; their mother, Marian, spends most of her time in bed, depressed, unable to participate in life. The majority of the characters are amazingly resilient.
“My mother had spent nearly my whole life in her bedroom,” narrator Alice tells us. With no mother to guide her, she receives most of her parenting from her overworked father, “the god of animals.” Although he is mostly gentle with them, even he has his limits.
Life isn’t easy in the horse business; the summer is hotter than any in 15 years, and the family’s business dries up as the competition improves its facilities. Out of need, Joe begins to board and train horses of the rich – horses of women whose husbands provide for them. He also takes on a young student, Sheila, who is not at all a natural rider but is determined to be a blue-ribbon winner.
The Winstons live in a small, gossipy community. No one quite knows what is wrong with the mother. Alice and her sister don’t know many relatives; their grandfather left home, highly unusual and suspect in this area, when Joe took over his ranch. “As much as the locals doubted the intentions of those who moved, new and fresh, into the valley, they doubted those who left it even more.” Alice is a lonely, hard-working girl who, for understanding, turns to an unlikely relationship with an English teacher.
Alice is not the only one who is lonely; so is her father. An ambitious man, he hates laziness and works almost constantly. He has lost his gifted, horse-showing daughter. The only time his wife attempts to join regular daily life is when his parents visit. The wife joins them for meals, looking pale and feigning recovery from an illness. As soon as Joe’s parents move on, Marian goes back to bed, for good. When one of the rich women whose horse he is training falls under Joe’s sway – as he is incredibly good with her horse and with the others (the women call him their “god”) – his life changes quite dramatically.
Tragedies ensue, Nona and her husband return home and help on the ranch, and the mother remains bedridden. Alice grows up too quickly.
Back to the significance of the title. Alice’s father does love his horses, especially the ones that no one else wants. He rescues old and abused horses, whom he calls “the old men,” from “kill
sales,” rejuvenates them and gives them a renewed purpose in life. Alice also loves animals, but in a more modern way. She looks at them as individual beings, not as a means to an end
- i.e., providing income for the family. She says on the phone to her teacher friend, when they discuss God’s existence, “It just seems like there should be someone, something out there that cares about them, cares that they existed, that they suffered or didn’t… Something out there ought to be watching over them.” She cares about their souls.
What I appreciated most about this book is its honesty, its truth. Most families experience sorrow or illness. People leave or become alienated. Ghosts hang in most closets. Kyle is not sentimental or judgmental. The mother, especially, is sympathetic. Life is just too much for her;
she can’t stand suffering, human or animal. People like this do exist, although I have seldom seen them so empathetically portrayed. Kyle lets her characters speak and act for themselves, and she paints a realistic portrait of a young girl in the West’s life, her needs and how she begins to come of age.