Road Trip: On Jessie van Eerden’s “Call It Horses”

March 16, 2021   •   By Sally Massagee

Call It Horses

Jessie van Eerden

THE VOICE OF a bright, stunted, 35-year-old orphan named Frankie pulls me smack into Jessie van Eerden’s Call It Horses and does not release me until well after the book’s last word. That voice sounds rasped, imperfect, and running the full register. When such a voice speaks, whispers, and sings a story about love, life, brokenness, pain, and the merging and tearing of relationships; about death; about becoming — well, I’m hooked.

But then, putting a compelling voice to paper is one of van Eerden’s strengths. Here, as in her previous works (Glorybound, The Long Weeping, and My Radio Radio), van Eerden brings her reader right inside her ordinary, yet remarkable, protagonist’s life and mind. The reader experiences the ride in sensuous detail, from a closer vantage point than many authors can achieve. And each of van Eerden’s protagonists, with whom the reader lives for a time, is a unique, broken person who is also luminous, beautiful, and growing.

Several relationships provide important background for this story. Frankie’s Aunt Mave lived with her lover, Ruth. Both women were linguists. Ruth, a complex, wise woman, studied in the desert and danced in private. As a young child, Frankie became pen pals with Ruth, and Frankie came to idolize Ruth’s wisdom. Ruth died, but her presence hovers over our story. Following Ruth’s death, Mave returned to her family home in Damascus, West Virginia, and became a brusque, reclusive alcoholic. Mave grieves the loss of her lover for the rest of her life, and Frankie holds Ruth as a wise guide and friend, as though Ruth’s death never happened. In fact, this story is a conversational and inquisitive letter from Frankie to Ruth.

When Frankie was 10 years old, her parents were killed in an automobile accident. Frankie remained in her family home, raised by Mave, who lived next door. In high school, Frankie had a heated love affair with Dillon. Dillon eventually left Damascus, but Frankie still considers Dillon her lover, and more. He also embodies aspects of herself. When our story starts, Frankie believes herself numbed, as though some blockage lodged in her throat prevents her loving, in part because of her continued passion for Dillon. During his absence, Dillon took a wife, Nan, whom he brings when he returns to Damascus.

In this story, Frankie, Mave, and Nan take a road trip from lush Damascus toward the desert. Mave has cancer and is heading for the desert to die — although she pretends to expect to return home. Frankie wants to dissolve the obstacle that prevents her loving and to give her aunt this final trip together. Nan is running away from Dillon, who beats her savagely. Even with the battery, Frankie begrudges Nan’s relationship with Dillon. Frankie and Mave are sneaking out of town when their truck dies, and Nan arrives with a working car. Mave and Frankie let Nan come, and Nan lets Frankie drive.

Frankie writes Ruth, asking for insight, and tells the stories of the road trip and the events leading up to it. The story of the earlier events begins with Frankie’s decision to marry a man she does not love. The scenes Frankie shares are rich and immediate, and the reader more lives Frankie’s rural West Virginia life than learns of it. The reader comes to love Frankie in these pages: to root for her, rejoice when she becomes pregnant, and sadden at Frankie’s fear that her bitterness and numbness will harm her child. Frankie miscarries, loss compounded upon loss. The reader slips inside Frankie’s pain, her love for her friends, her tormented relationships with several men in her life, her bonds with her aunts and mother-in-law.

Mave is diagnosed with stage four cancer, receives one chemo treatment, discontinues medical care, and plans the trip out west — a road trip that she privately intends to end with suicide. Mave wants to see the land of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose cow-skull paintings weave through the book.

The stories of the road trip and of the events leading up to it weave together. Each scene feels so immediate that only rarely does the reader recall that Frankie is writing a letter — usually when Frankie addresses Ruth directly to ask a question. The relationships among the car-mates grow and shift, as relationships do. Nan and Frankie wrestle with their pasts, and Mave struggles with her habits of isolation and silence. Even with the characters’ pain, though, the trip is not heavy. The women’s lives, both in their present road trip and in their previous histories, are also filled with beauty and pleasure. Mave’s biting wit and the hound Frankie brought along on impulse, a dog who stinks and nuzzles Nan close, draw laughter.

Call It Horses is a book of becoming, an intimate book that draws its reader in close, so that as Frankie dislodges the blockage that chokes her ability to love, the reader, too, feels obstacles dissolve. This is also a love story, many love stories: stories of familial love between Frankie and Mave, romantic love between Mave and Ruth, tormented passion between Frankie and Dillon, caretaking love, girlfriend love, a fledgling love between Frankie and her husband, and a fresh, growing love between Frankie and herself, between Frankie and life. The story touches on the nexus of body and soul; it looks at each separately, and it ponders their interplay. “Love” is a big word, nebulous, multifaceted. Van Eerden brings that amorphous word down into sensuous experience for the reader to inhabit.

Not only a love story, though, Call It Horses is also a story about language. Mave and Ruth are both linguists. Mave urges Frankie to write a book. Words themselves are precious to Ruth, to Mave, to Frankie, and surely to van Eerden, who weaves them together so artfully. Van Eerden brings to light ways that both language and the physical body give form to life in its mysterious depths. Language, Mave says, does more than convey information: it creates. Ruth studied hieroglyphs, and Frankie ponders the specific picture-symbols for soul, or for the body’s rush through time. When we later see Nan’s voluptuous drawings, when another friend wants to discuss her own “body of work” of drawings and paintings, the art assumes more profound significance because of its connection with language and with underlying life mysteries — mysteries too deep, vibrant, and full to be contained by words.

Van Eerden builds suspense using the interplay between the road trip and its backstory. She doles out a tantalizing tidbit, a curiosity, in one story, before revealing the answer, often in the other. The reader glimpses relationship dynamics that then emerge into clear sight and, finally, crescendo. Van Eerden has crafted characters so rich that the reader seems to be meeting real people in these pages — people with all the damage, fear, wonder, and possibility we experience. The practicalities of the trip and the combination of personalities and histories create funny scenes as well as poignant, deep ones. The journey itself spans the full range of feeling.

Van Eerden’s characters often inhabit liminal spaces, and the sense of threshold enhances the beauty, mystery, and depth of the book. During the road trip, Mave lives on the verge of death. Frankie has lived in an emotionally shut-down state, her engagement and relational ability numbed, but she feels ready to disgorge the obstacle that prevents her loving. Ruth is truly liminal; Mave and Frankie speak of her and to her as though she were a remarkable and wise living being, as though she were life itself. Even words themselves — which in the aggregate act almost as a character — occupy a liminal space as they approach, brush up against, but can never quite capture or fully convey, life’s deeper realities and mysteries.

Through the journey, Frankie does grow, does become. Frankie questions, at the start, her own ability to love, and the reader watches her grow in complex engagement with different types of love, with different thoughts of love’s nature. The reader experiences Frankie relating to men; to her aged mother-in-law; to her aunts, cousins, and friends; and to Nan, whom she first considers an enemy. But van Eerden so skillfully draws her characters’ growth that the reader no more consciously notes the progression than a mother notices her child’s daily growth.

Some say that questions are more important than answers. Few authors write questions as delightfully, effectively, or deftly as van Eerden. The story itself poses some questions: Can love grow in a relationship begun in practicality? Can the act of serving ignite love? Van Eerden’s characters ask questions of each other: What do you love? What are the worst and best things you’ve done, and could they be the same thing? Frankie’s letter itself asks not rhetorical questions but profound queries asked of life itself. When we touch ourselves, who are we touching, and might we then touch someone unexpected?

Van Eerden writes so lyrically that Call It Horses often feels like poetry or music — which brings me to the thrumming deep words that van Eerden has planted throughout the story. Symbols and metaphors pulse a profound, beautiful, almost archetypal energy throughout the book: beets, caves, birds, and, of course, horses. These symbols and metaphors trigger my own questions: What is the connection between blood and nurture? How do we access our deepest hidden spaces, and what do we do with and in those spaces? How do we best inhabit these bodies, how do we connect and separate from others in their own bodies, and how do we, finally, best leave these bodies?

Frankie’s final question of the book paradoxically addresses a dead woman who “know[s] all the living words.” Frankie’s question about the name of a particular love transforms the story’s ending into a beginning and leaves the reader sitting with possibility itself stretched out ahead — all of the possibility of all of the kinds of names of all of the kinds of love.

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Sally Massagee lives and writes in Hendersonville, North Carolina. She is working on a memoir about an undiagnosed illness that brushed her up against death, dissolved fear, and sweetened life.