Rebecca Gilman’s The Land of Little Horses explores the lives of Evelyn, Jessica, and Jean Louise, three sisters who spent their childhoods in the shadow of their alcoholic father’s struggling career as a poet and academic. Evelyn, recently engaged to her long-time boyfriend Charles, has been left to look after their childhood home after their father’s early death and their mother’s subsequent remarriage and departure from their family. Evelyn works a steady job, trying to find normalcy, while Jessica trails in and out as her lovers (and desire for independence) wax and wane. Jean Louise lives with Evelyn, and is primarily responsible for taking care of their mentally ill aunt, Dot, who was abandoned by a cruel husband and treated for multiple suicide attempts with electroconvulsive therapy that has left her a dependent adult. Jean Louise, cleverly precocious, observant, and yet still unable to outrun the incapacitating grief that her mother finally turned away from, is ready for a change of practically any variety. She makes a spontaneous choice to take Dot on a vacation around the country, following a touring group who breeds and races miniature horses. The family she leaves behind finally begin to deal with their own disrupted affection, past resentments, and longing for a better future in each others’ lives.
Each of these sisters is escaping from the impressions left on them by the adults who raised them and finding their own meaning of happiness. For Evelyn and Jessica, a part of this dwells with their romantic relationships to men, and their completely opposing tactics for exploring intimacy are framed against one another in a way that allows for the validity of either choice to shine through. Evelyn also must seek closure with her mother, Laura, whose choice to only prioritize her own needs left her daughters without their own ability to move forward. For Jean Louise, escaping the inability to find power in her own narrative is paramount, and she begins to dream of what her goals and aspirations might realistically look like if she finally releases the anger and sadness following her since the loss of her father. Gilman’s talent truly lies in finding the artful moments in everyday expression, and the casual yet vulnerable text captures a quiet intimacy with an audience that is always relatable and relevant to the conversations we have with ourselves as a society. The Land of Little Horses offers a rich and poignant examination of family dynamic in a simple story that is both entertaining and intricately bound to realism that we all experience.
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