Fans of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, road trip narratives, evocative prose, or stories that feature strong female leads and deeply explore what it is to be human and to be happy will relish Jessie van Eerden’s latest novel, Call It Horses (Dzanc Books, 2021). Frankie is a thirty-something reluctant newlywed who, in letters to her dying aunt Mave’s deceased lover, recounts the story of her last days with Mave, as well as the story of herself. The novel brilliantly engages poetic reflections on loneliness, religion, sexuality, and womanhood, against the backdrop of American landscape spanning rural Arkansas to the dazzling southern desert. Throughout her novel, van Eerden juxtaposes the sacred with the profane: intimate, forbidden love stories shared in seedy diners that reek of stale beef and bleach; an aging atheist who flouts the God of her devout dead sister’s Bible, and the niece caught in the crossfires of love for both women and their ideologies; a poet-at-heart artist who can’t stop doodling genitals; letters to a beloved deceased mentor penned on a Dollar Store notepad. In the inescapable mundanity of everyday living, van Eerden’s women enter a brave new world of self-discovery, freedom, and happiness.
Given that the recipient of Frankie’s letters was an anthropologist and linguist, the novel unsurprisingly returns again and again to the theme of how language writes us. As Ruth’s old lover and former student Mave observes, “Language does more than signify, you need to know that. It originates. It makes a little bread.” This line follows a story Mave shares with the town slut, Nan, about Ruth’s own desert journey to Sinai, a monumental landsite in Biblical tradition. The story echoes the structure of the novel. Call It Horses is a series of letters, or one ongoing letter, through which Frankie’s memories and thoughts filter, seeking origin, seeking meaning. She invites a deep-seated introspection on her orphaned childhood, her first (and still lingering) love, her current marriage, and the politics of a societal structure confounded by women like Frankie and Mave who do not fit into the domestic framework. Frankie recalls Ruth’s suggestion to study how language can be used against oneself: “Nation in the Latin and the Old French peeled back to expose birth, to be born, to be uttered into the world, a spectrum of Black, White, Male, Female, each of us simply uttered like a particle of human light.” This observation recalls the Genesis creation story of God speaking the world into being, which Frankie notes in her mother’s Living Word, in which she positions herself by writing a response to the story of God and Hagar. An apt student like her aunt, Frankie studies how words thus shape and define us; unlike self-assured Mave before her, Frankie struggles to define herself, as she discovers that assigning oneself through words is a far from simple task. “Our private moments had come in contact to make an exquisite loneliness,” she remarks. “I felt within me plenty of boy and plenty of girl, and then I wondered if that was what Mave felt since my mother had told me, confusingly, when I’d asked why Mave was not married, that she loved like men love.” Her aunt furnishes another suggestion: “Inside, maybe, we are multiple.”
Part of the struggle stems from the complications of living, as van Eerden casts a softening light on the quiet grief and heartache of bereavement. Both Frankie and Mave navigate a world of ghosts. For Frankie, it is her mother; each morning she “rose and slipped into Mother’s skin during her gospel radio hour”; and for Mave, it is Ruth, whose invitation to both women to live deeply resonates posthumously. The very nature of Mave and Ruth’s relationship casts a scandalous shadow across Frankie’s surviving family and rural community. Mave assumes the role of caretaker for Frankie, but the surrogate mother-daughter kinship is further complicated by something unnameable in Mave’s own nature. Frankie describes her aunt’s face “that had always radiated for me a godlessness and nerve, a sadness, a sickly humor, a mystification. And something close to love but not quite.” Her closest ally and relative, Mave allows her bereaved niece an unconventional amount of freedom and independence, raising her in a separate house from her own and allowing Frankie to drop out of high school. This extravagant amount of isolation illuminates a pervasive, othering loneliness for women like Frankie, Mave, and eventually Nan, who cannot fit in. The novel gazes into the subject of loneliness, regarding it as something natural, a practical entity of oneself. “Mave’s aloneness was a bleached bone tended and preserved and shining. My own was a bone beginning to whiten.” For Nan, the loneliness stems in part from her abusive husband and from her sexual transgressions outside of marriage that mark her as an outcast in her community. But she also attests that what separates her is her longing for a more meaningful life, which she recognizes in Frankie and Mave. Part-time janitor, high-school dropout, and apathetic wife Frankie balks at this pronouncement of her life.
What ultimately binds these three women is their knack for survival. Mave raises Frankie, carving out a “new world. It felt like an old world.” It is a world as unconventional in its boundaries as the two women themselves. Frankie marries middle-aged Clay before the start of the novel’s present plot, a decision that surprises even herself as she weighs the costs of accepting domestic life. Her other maternal aunt, a mother of four, succeeds at this life, and so does Clay, who makes room for Frankie in his mother’s color-coordinated house. Conversely, she sees Mave resist the convention. Nan, too, within her marriage openly defies convention by her extramarital affairs; she asserts agency over her own body, which she regards as “more than a body for men and babies.” Despite the bruises Nan bears from her husband’s beatings, Frankie feels loyalty towards Nan’s husband, a former lover, and initially shows a cringe-worthy lack of compassion for Nan. The desire for freedom and the capacity to pursue it give language and power to all three women as they move—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—away from that which threatens to bind them.
Call It Horses is a charge to live deeply. It is an invitation to self-discovery, the thesis of these women’s road trip. “‘Georgia O’Keeffe lived in Abiquiú,” Mave said. “The painter. She wasn’t from there. Sometimes you recognize yourself in a place you’ve never seen before. O’Keeffe said that.’” Indeed, the landscape of the New Mexican desert (the women’s Promised Land, though Frankie confesses early on that they actually only make it to Texas) serves as van Eerden’s theatre of meeting oneself, perhaps for the first time. “If there are indeed regions inside a person, she and I longed for the inner desert region, to meet its physical correlative in the bear grass and prickly pear and quartz and juniper.” This desire for freedom is what calls them to the desert in the first place, as dying Mave dreams of horses and answers its siren call. Likewise, Frankie also looks to the desert, “to show me, finally, whether I was incapable of love, whether I lived too hermetically,” recalling Henry David Thoreau’s famous declaration: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Throughout the novel, Mave charges Frankie to write a book, the underlying plea to write herself, to embrace an undiscovered self-confidence and be. Striking out from the safety net of comfort and familiarity, Frankie responds to her aunt’s charge, to her mentor Ruth’s charge: “I remember in one letter, Ruth, you told me to cut flowers daily. You said, They don’t have to be yours. Ownership is illusion.” Likewise, the story Frankie shares is not hers only; it contains a deafening chorus of voices. Similarly, Call It Horses is not Jessie van Eerden’s alone; it is a novel that belongs to all of us, a charge to explore, to question, to change what one must in order to live as deeply as humanly possible.
Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work is featured/forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, Literary Review, Image, Cimarron Review, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Midwest Review, Gulf Stream, and others. She is a former Fulbright Scholar and Pushcart Prize nominee.