Triple Play

Fathers and sons, Horse People, and dog days.

(page 2 of 3)


Nelle Fenton would be a good 
woman to have around if the subject is 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 creative-writing program at the University of Memphis, is the reason. She knows this territory’s history, its class distinctions (rich and poor, white and black), 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 — 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.


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