“I write you about the dead. I write you to stay alive and, after all this time, I write you, still, to become myself.” The opening page of Jessie van Eerden’s latest book Call It Horses, winner of the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize, draws us into this compelling epistolary novel that the narrator Frankie is writing to her deceased pen pal Ruth. Call It Horses is much more than a book about a woman writing her memoir, or a road trip, or an exploration of three women’s unlikely friendship. Instead, this lyrical book dives deeper, looking with great compassion at the intertwining of love and loss for three women leaving the town of Damascus, West Virginia.
Chapters alternate between the present—a 1990 road trip to New Mexico—and the past histories of the characters, slowly unveiling the complexities of these travelers’ relationships. Orphaned at age ten, narrator Frankie, now thirty-six and married to an older church singer named Clay, is writing these scenes on any scrap of paper at hand as she remembers them. She is accompanied by her Aunt Mave who served as her aloof guardian from the crumbling house next door, telling her young charge to write her life into a book. Mave spent much of her time dwelling in her own sadness. Her lover Ruth, a linguistics professor at Amherst who once studied the Sinai Desert and saw great potential in the unschooled but thoughtful letters of young Frankie, had passed away years ago. Succumbing to alcoholism, Mave had returned to this “bog” town, angry and lonely. Nan, the improbable final companion in the Oldsmobile careering its way West, is the wife of Frankie’s childhood friend (and young love) Dillon. Nan starts the journey with a blackened eye, one of several women in the book victimized by domestic violence. Frankie’s husband’s hound Ellis is along for comic relief.
Given this backstory, this trip is not an ordinary one for any of the women in the car. Adding to the tension, we discover early on that while Mave has smuggled a gun into the trunk, she has flushed away her lung cancer medications, bringing only the “good” drugs. Mave also does not have enough oxygen tanks to return from New Mexico, the spiritual home of Georgia O’Keefe, an artist whose work grows in meaning for each of these women. As Mave approaches what she wants to be her final days, hoping to end her life in a place that might bring her closer to her dead lover, Frankie is also struggling: “I wanted the desert scrub to show me, finally, whether I was incapable of love.” Nan, a woman some considered the town whore, is grappling with her own demons, dreaming of true artistic expression as she sketches graphic sexual graffiti in public spaces.
Despite the dark premise, Call It Horses doesn’t succumb to sadness, for van Eerden deftly allows the women to dream of lives larger than their circumstances. We see their co-op gatherings as an “uttering like prayer, a way to connect to the life inside our lives.” We benefit from their art lessons as these women look beyond their daily struggles to capture the beauty of their natural surroundings. We listen to their linguistic explorations as words bring meaning to their lives and hear the musings these characters offer as wry quips, “There is no soul, but you can have one if you want one. It’s a free country.” Despite their maternal losses, there is also great kindness slowly woven in their pages—in the canned and baked offerings; in the quiet ways they care for their sick and dying; in their hand-painted necklaces for gravestones of miscarried babies.
While we could spend all our time focusing just on the deftly threaded plot, there are many levels to this text. As in any good road trip, secrets are revealed as the characters bond over cheap hotels and roadside attractions. When the women wonder whether the best and worst things they’ve done could be one and the same, they don’t search for answers but rather van Eerden offers symbolic stories and scenes. There are moments of deep soul, in witnessing a sacred hotel baptism, in the skinny-dipping in a frigid western lake. The title scene involves a heart wrenching ride on a horse that allows characters a moment of clarity and a chance to, perhaps, start again. After all, while these words are written to a beatified former mentor long passed, they are a chance for Frankie to spiral through her life again, to gain a new perspective on the ways in which these words, like all the Biblical themes of this text, become a symbol, and then, finally, allow her to become fully involved in her life, in her flesh.
Call It Horses, by Jessie van Eerden. Dzanc Books, March 2021. 256 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
Maria Judnick teaches in the English and Environmental Studies departments at Santa Clara University while working part-time as the digital projects coordinator for the San Jose State Writing Center. She has been published in academic (most recently, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy) and literary (including Gemini Magazine) journals. She previously freelanced for KQED Pop! and the arts section of the Santa Clara Weekly.