March Read of the Month: “Call It Horses,” by Jessie Van Eerden

Jessie Van Eerden

Reviewed by Becca Spence Dobias

Call it Horses is a difficult text in multiple ways, and as is often the case, its difficulty makes it an incredibly rewarding read. Perhaps most challenging is its subject matter, which includes domestic violence, pregnancy loss, cancer, death, and suicide, but its prose, too, is thick and intentional, each word carefully selected. It requires a slowing down of the reader to fully absorb.

This is, again, not a bad thing. Van Eerden’s literary training—she holds a BA in English as well as an MFA—is apparent in her illustrious prose.  She writes, for example, of “minds rotting in the awful lush of West Virginia mountain summer,” and of “all the force of his decade-aged body. In the paper goods,” evoking the emotional potency of running into an old lover in Wal-Mart. Her details summon West Virginia brilliantly, from a baby shower in an old gym to the Country Crock tub the women use to water the hound that comes along on their road trip to the desert.

Van Eerden’s slow drip of information about the characters is equally impressive. At the beginning, readers know very little—not the significance of the woman to whom the narrator, Frankie, is writing, nor the reason for the road trip at the center of the novel, but we want to know, almost desperately. Van Eerden feeds answers one at a time, in such a way that each morsel feels revelatory and obvious at once.

This masterful unveiling is important, as plot-wise, very little happens: The characters’ journey West is interrupted only by small setbacks and character revelations, which themselves feel ordinary and expected—certainly not manufactured or forced for the sake of action. Through flashbacks and Frankie’s confessions to her letters’ recipient, readers become invested in the women and their relationship to one another. It is thus that Van Eerden challenges popular wisdom about story structure. This, too, is certainly intentional, as it mirrors Appalachian modes of storytelling—circular, the miraculous wrapped into the mundane, the conflict often quiet and internal. In life, it is not through dramatic action that love grows, but through relationship, over time. Call It Horses shows that the same can be true for fiction.

Van Eerden digs into cliches of Appalachian women to show their beauty and complexity. On the surface, each of the three main characters fits neatly into stereotypes. There is Nan, the waify, ditzy battered wife; Frankie, the janitor who never got out of her stifling hometown but dreams of something more; and Mave, an older woman living alone surrounded by her piles of junk—broken chairs and an old butter churn, dirty plates and rotting flowers. Van Eerden doesn’t allow her readers to see these characters as tropes for even a moment, though. We know instantly that Frankie is a linguist, her opening letter peppered with phrases like “this liminal mud.” And Nan, the woman we may be most eager to underestimate, is a brilliant artist, whose vanity does not negate her wisdom and empathy. Mave, we learn, is enamored with Georgia O’Keefe and has spent time in New England surrounded by academia and academics. Amidst her junk are stacks of books—art, philosophy, and history. The dense, beautiful prose serves a distinct purpose then, by refusing to allow readers to mistake rurality and victimization for a lack of intelligence. The agency we see from these women is striking, each taking her destiny into her own hands without apology.

On the first page of Call It Horses, Frankie asks, “Do you think regions and landscapes can body forth what’s in a person?” and certainly this book has bodied forth both West Virginia and its characters. Frankie tells her reader, “I write you to stay alive and…I write you, still, to become myself.” Van Eerden has gifted us with a novel to read for the same reasons.

The novel, her third, won the 2019 Dzanc Prize for Fiction. A West Virginia native, Jessie van Eerden holds a BA in English from West Virginia University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals, including The Oxford American, New England Review, and Bellingham Review. She has taught for over eighteen years in college classrooms and adult literacy programs, and she directed the low-residency MFA writing program of West Virginia Wesleyan College for seven years. She lives in Roanoke, Virginia, and is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University as well as the nonfiction editor for Orison Books.

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