Nelle Fenton knows more than most about horses. She can ride (even sidesaddle), she can jump fences (and thrill at the prospect), she can fox-hunt (with the winning tails as trophies), she can breed (a fine Thoroughbred), and she can deliver (a foal).
But can this Pennsylvania debutante turned mistress of the manor in Virginia horse country act as faithful wife and caring mother? In her own manner, she can. Meaning that Nelle, a woman with little patience for people in general and less patience with the foolhardy, does indeed remain married to Richard Fenton an entire adult lifetime, despite her extramarital affairs and private disappointments. And as for her seven sons: They do indeed crave their mother's affection (as Nelle herself craved her formidable mother's), but even Nelle would admit that her maternal instincts are no match for the company of horses and her love of the rolling Virginia countryside.
Why, then, does Nelle Fenton make for such a compelling character in the nine linked stories that make up Horse People (Louisiana State University Press)? Cary Holladay, the author and a teacher in the department of English at the University of Memphis, is the reason. She knows this territory's history, its class distinctions, its racial divides, its plants and wildlife and seasons as only a native Virginian and keen observer can. An observer who can recall the popular term for a partial stroke: "the halfway sickness." Who knows, according to folklore, that a garden turtle won't let up on his bite until he hears it thunder. Who remembers the solution to sea winds whipping up a woman's skirt: coins sewn into the hem. And who especially understands what makes a woman such as Nelle tick — tick from girlhood in 1861 (in Holladay's opening story, "The Bridge") to the collection's closing story ("Horse People").
How long can Nelle Fenton go on, her surviving family had been asking. Until 1976, age 93, is what readers of Horse People learn.
Cary Holladay: I worked on the stories in Horse People over a 10-year period, when I was also writing the stories that make up The Deer in the Mirror, another collection of my stories, which will be coming out in June from Ohio State University Press.
At some point, I realized the stories in Horse People should be linked. There's more resonance that way. They add up to more than the sum of the parts. From the very beginning, though, I was using the same extended family, and I thought about them over time. The first story I wrote, "Nelle on the Grass," was in The Idaho Review in 2003. The opening story, "The Bridge," won me an NEA fellowship in 2006. The other stories just came to me from the web of family relationships, the material, and the place — a real place.
It's where my father grew up with six brothers and where my grandparents raised horses. The "feel" of that place: I've lived it, experienced it — the land, the weather, the people, the culture. As a child, it's where my sisters and cousins would go. It's where my grandfather died before I was born. It's where my grandmother was.
She was very much like Nelle Fenton — a Philadelphian who married a Virginia farmer in 1907. You know how, when you're little, all your older relatives seem like celebrities? Well, to me, they did seem larger than life. My grandmother may have already been old by the time I was born, but she was an accomplished horsewoman and did prefer animals to people. She'd even say so, but she also loved to entertain. And yes, she was formidable, competitive — probably more so than Nelle Fenton. But I also knew she was a creator of family and beauty and a catalyst for these stores.
I, of course, invented many of the incidents in Horse People, but it's true: My grandmother, like Nelle, had traveled the world with her family when she was younger. But when she moved to Virginia, she concentrated on raising a family and raising horses. She'd go to horse shows. She'd go on hunts. People still tell stories about her with admiration. And as in Horse People, her husband — my grandfather — was a farmer, miller, and judge.
Back then, the community in Orange County, Virginia, was very rural, and I used to wonder if my grandmother missed her other, earlier life — that life of travel and sophistication when she was young. But later in life she was always right in the center of things by virtue of having seven children. Growing up, when I'd go back, her home was a place for celebration and pleasure, abundance and excitement.
The opening story in Horse People, "The Bridge," is based on a diary kept by my great-grandfather's first wife, who died very young. The diary tells of her travels in the Virginia mountains, her loss of a daughter, her love for her husband, and her knowledge that the Civil War was starting.
One of my aunts found that diary — a private, intense record of one woman's life in the 1850s and '60s — a heartfelt diary. What struck me is that she must have known what was ahead for her once she became so sick. She would've known that she was going to die and that her husband was going to go to war. I think of that diary as her talking to me.
The lovely thing is how much that house and property haven't changed. There are still foxes and deer. You can see the stars at night, hear the songbirds. It's still such a beautiful place — 45 minutes northeast of Charlottesville — but the big fear is that it's all too close to Washington, which is getting closer all the time. The eastern part of Orange County has already fallen to big-box stores. The western part — still largely rural, still dotted with farms — has been fighting it.
I love using history and historical details in my writing. I read old medical books, army muster rolls. And even in a contemporary setting, I find ways to work in older stuff. It's there no matter what — seems there's always a character harking back to things she's heard. It's not nostalgia per se. It's a vast curiosity and the wonder of how we got here, who we are.
I also like to write "physical" stories ... stories that include the land and the weather ... sensory experiences. That's where the story is for me.
Writer Robert Morgan recommends that writers "follow the pain." That can be physical or emotional or spiritual pain. I see Nelle Fenton as a woman in a lot of pain. Yes, she had happiness, but many of the stories in Horse People have to do with what Nelle stirred up or the trouble that found her. As a writer, there's a great advantage to having a main character who's decisive, even a personality that's harsh, but she makes things happen. Nelle is an unusual character inspired by an usual woman.
And there's a photograph: my grandmother and her husband and their sons on a long-ago sunny day. Her hat is pulled down over her face in the style of the '30s, and I've wondered what was in her thoughts just then. She looks to me so sad.
But I'd like to think of Horse People as a book that many people helped me to write by simply living their lives. Lives I've observed and borrowed from. Real lives. I have more debts than I'll ever be able to repay or even acknowledge.
Cary Holladay will be reading from and signing Horse People at Burke's Book Store (936 S. Cooper) on Friday, March 22nd, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. For more information, call the store at 278-7484 or go to burkesbooks.com.