If success in fiction depends on creating characters who seem not just believable but actual, then Cary Holladay succeeds wildly in Horse People, the latest issue in the Yellow Shoe Fiction series out of LSU Press.
Riding through most of this story collection is Nelle Fenton: horsewoman, businesswoman, wife, and eventual mother of seven sons. You won’t soon forget her fierce and independent spirit; she awes everyone but her gentle husband Richard. The daughter of a rich Philadelphia attorney, Nelle marries and settles in Rapidan, Va., in the early 1900s, plowing her wealth into a horse farm that thrives under her management.
In one sense, though, Nelle never settles: A restless longing pulls her in unconventional directions. Her occasional ruthlessness will strike you but won’t surprise because you’ll come to know her from within. In a statement to the National Endowment for the Arts, Holladay says, “I like to imagine how people [in the past] felt and thought, and what inevitable consequences they set in motion due to their actions, passions, and force of will.”
Ordered from 1861 to 1953, the nine stories in this collection represent four generations of Fentons. But Holladay’s art supersedes chronology; memory bends the separate but related narratives. She says, “The mind and heart move back and forth between past and present, and I feel freer to make that happen in my stories that shift between characters’ memories and current experiences.” Remarkably, her horse people also occasionally glimpse the future. Such epiphanies give them a strange certainty about what will happen to them and those they love and likewise strengthen the ties between the stories.
In “Monstrosities,” Nelle is distracted, both by a troubling vision of a stillborn foal and by storms within her own heart. The foal’s fate—that’s for you to discover. As for Nelle, her divided self orders, “Stop. Stop your wanting, your yearning for something different than what you have. To which she says, I can’t.”