Martha Lessen is awkward and shy but also very determined and firm in her love for horses. She is the main character in “The Hearts of Horses,” by Molly Gloss. Martha rides into Elwha County in 1917 looking for “some work breaking horses.” Apparently this wasn’t an unusual situation at the time. Women took over much of the work on farms and ranches because so many young men had gone off to fight in WWI. Martha is dressed like a cowboy out of a Wild West show when she meets George and Louise Bliss. George is amused by her odd appearance and serious demeanor. He hires her to break two horses and introduces her to other ranchers in the area who are in need of a trainer.
Louise is concerned about Martha’s comfort and social life. Martha prefers to sleep in the tack room of the barn where she can read “Black Beauty” by lantern light. But Louise knows how to draw Martha into conversation, sharing their interest in reading and she encourages Martha to socialize at church and other events that often required young people to ride for miles to a dance or party. Martha works seven days a week, going to seven ranches, riding a circle, breaking horses, in her skilled and gentle way. She never has to “buck them out.” She uses light saddles, tin cans, feathers, and a soft voice. She develops a community of friends and we learn more about the lives of the people that live in the county, including their personal struggles with alcoholism, disease, prejudice, and loneliness. Over the winter Martha becomes a dear and indispensible neighbor, treating animals and humans with great kindness. Most of the story takes place over the season that Martha first comes to the county, but the short wrap-up at the end provides a warm and satisfactory ending to reassure us that Martha lived the happy life she wanted and deserved.