Useful story for our shifting times and those who feel lost.
horse/man by Julia Merritt released in January in the Fiction – Literary genre.
What happens when your entire identity revolves around a way of life that is becoming obsolete?
In the 1920s, as Canada progresses through the Industrial Revolution, horses are still the rural engines of survival. As a child Adam lives this reality on his family’s farm in the Ottawa Valley, planning to take over one day and have a family of his own. When his parents die during the Great Depression, nineteen-year-old Adam is disinherited in favour of his brother and is forced to move to the city to find work. Without a formal education his choices are few, yet he finds a place to use his horsemanship skills in the dwindling forces of the Canadian cavalry based near Montreal. There he finds pride in being a mounted soldier, and friendship with his fellow dragoons. But the cavalry units are mechanized by the beginning of World War Two, and when Adam is sent to Europe, he must abandon his equine partners for trucks and tanks. In the catastrophic experience of war, he will lose everything once again.
Broken in body and spirit, he returns to Canada where he must confront the question of survival in a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for an injured soldier. Full of poetic reflections on what it means to work with horses, horse/man is a powerful story about a man searching for dignity and connection in the face of a rapidly shifting world.
“You know,” Tom carried on, “you may want to start considering one for yourself.”
“Mmm,” said Ciaran, wary.
Tom shook his head. “They’re the way of the future, I’m telling you. Gonna save you farmers reams of work.”
Ciaran’s face went blank. “We’ll see,” was all he said. He looked at the floor for a moment, then to the back of the shop where Tom’s assistant was gathering the order. Tom uncrossed his arms, shifting to pull his pencil from behind his ear and move it over the ledger.
On the way home, Adam sat in the wagon’s front seat and rolled the image of the car in his mind, trying to remember the details. He’d seen cars advertised in catalogues, one of those fantastical advancements that people in the Ottawa Valley weren’t wealthy enough to afford. The idea of climbing into a car was far removed from hitching a horse to a wagon. Who owned it? Why did that person need it? Adam thought maybe his father might know, but Ciaran’s silence was always forbidding, and he wasn’t brave enough to break it. He recalled the car’s colour as so deeply black it was unnatural compared to even the blackest of horses, whose coats were sunburnt in the summer and covered with dust in the winter. And when it had passed, the engine sound had drowned out all others.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Julia Merritt has been captivated by horses ever since she could see out of the car window. Then she grew up and became a public library CEO and certified animal bodyworker. She lives in Ontario, Canada, with her thoroughbred horses and smooth collie dogs. This is her first novel.
This story sounds absolutely contemporary. What can we all learn from it?
I’m so glad you saw it as a contemporary story! I certainly do. There are many changes taking place in society as the economy shifts to valuing new ways of working and new skill sets, and I see many parallels between 1922 and 2022.
One of the things that holds Adam back in his journey is his lack of education. In my career as a librarian I frequently encounter the reality that many people don’t have the education and skills to be able to transition to a knowledge economy, and navigate the digital technology that has become increasingly sophisticated over the last 25 years. Maybe they never had to learn those things at their job, maybe they haven’t had the money to spend on new computers, maybe they weren’t interested in learning when things were newer and now the complexity requires too big a leap for them. Whatever the reason, the outcome is that they are not in a position of strength. Their earning power will go down, which of course affects their quality of life, and prevents them from being included in the cultural shifts that are taking place.
horse/man doesn’t go in to much detail about new technologies that force Adam out of the life he grew up in, but one thing it makes clear is that there are unintended consequences to the decisions we make in the name of “progress”. I put the word in quotation marks because of course the concept of progress is not absolute. It has been agreed upon by humans to mean certain things – some of them related to money and not human well-being. For example, the original people who were developing the concept of suburban housing in the early 1900s leaned heavily on the idea that suburbs were cleaner and closer to nature than living in the city, and therefore healthier for children and families. And as we now know, suburban developments present significant challenges including: people feeling as though they don’t share a sense of community, forcing them to rely on expensive vehicle ownership, and taking up much of the time in their days with long commutes to work. To say nothing of the amount of farmland that has been lost! But the original developers would have been quite happy to link their financial gain to the idea of progress…
As the concept of progress impacts Adam’s ability to make a living, another theme that arises is the disconnect between humans and their environment. I mean this both in the sense that people have become disconnected from nature, and from the amount of work that goes into supporting our lifestyles in Canada and the USA. In Adam’s case this shows up as his client base moves from the country to the city, as has been the trend since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And as time passes, more labour is mechanized, or more recently, globalized – so that we neither see nor experience the amount of work that goes into making things like the smartphone or computer you are reading this on.
All of these realities working in the background combine to create a situation where Adam is lonely. Loneliness is currently deemed by many governments as an epidemic, with extremely detrimental impacts on the health and well-being of people. Due to the situation Adam finds himself in, he falls into this category much sooner than most, with no clear way out.
None of the above is to say that our society and our choices are inherently bad – but they are collective decisions with collective impacts. Adam’s life speaks to these issues because he can’t make the transition to new ways of working and being. Going forward into 2022, I would argue that we still need to be mindful of all of these things, and to work towards ways of including more consideration for other people and the environment as we choose what our society is going to look like in another hundred years.
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