The subtitle on Tom Groneberg's "One Good Horse" is "Learning to Train and Trust a Horse." But this is no guidebook for would-be horse-whisperers, equestrians or rodeo cowboys.
Sure, the story is built around Groneberg's relationship with a young horse. The ranching business is going to hell and Groneberg's wife has just learned she's pregnant when he finds an unbroken horse, in which he invests his money, his time and his sense of self.
But this memoir is so much more. It's the story of a man finding his place in the world. It's the story of a romantic dreamer putting down roots. It's a story of the inexplicable bonds between cowboys. It's a story about who we see when we look in the mirror. And it's the story of a father confronting some of his worst fears.
At least four stories unfold simultaneously in this plainspoken cowboy poet's story. Groneberg explores the latigo mythology that haunts him, the landscape of his western Montana community and his own heart (which might be inextricable), the birth of a son with Down Syndrome, and his passion for one good horse, which after a lot of thought, he names Teddy Blue. The name isn't merely a poetic accident.
"One Good Horse" is marbled with the colorful life story of Teddy Blue Abbott, a true post-Civil War cowpoke from the heyday of Texas trail drives, Charlie Russell and Billy the Kid. In the British-born Abbott (who died in 1939 at age 78), the reader sees the ghost-mentor Groneberg never knew. He's the cowboy Chicago-born Groneberg always dreamed of being.
But Groneberg's more cowboy than a lot of five-generation Montana poseurs who are more hat than cow, and never knew anything else. For more than 10 years, he's been a cowboy because he chose the life, not because it chose him. And this highly personal chronicle -- an extension of his earlier "The Secret Life of Cowboys" -- he opens his heart in ways few cowboys ever do. The painful revelation of his newborn son's incurable genetic disorder sparks his commitment to be as good a father as he can be. And for him, that even more important than being a good cowboy.
The layering of Teddy Blue Abbott's historic adventures with Groneberg's contemporary life is reminiscent of "Battlefield" (1992) by Peter Svenson, an artist who learned about life, love and farming when he unwittingly buys an old Civil War battleground. Svenson cross-cuts historic accounts of the combat and his more sedate skirmishes with seasons, farm equipment and the ghosts of history.
In both books, this contrapuntal structure adds depth and wisdom, but Groneberg goes a step or two beyond the mere juxtaposition of twin stories from separate centuries. This is not just a story of a love for the western landscape, but also a story about the landscape of a heart. It's not an epic story, but its themes are grand.