Friday, October 17, 2008

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is the collection of Katherine Anne Porter’s three short novels that was first published in 1939, offering three pieces of fiction that very much helped to make and secure Porter’s reputation as one of this country’s best short fiction writers. Calling these pieces “short novels” may be a bit of a stretch for most readers, however, and it may be more appropriate to look at them as “long short stories.” After all, the book is only 150 pages in length.

Porter herself weighed in on the question and seems to have preferred the term “short novels” asking of readers and critics, “please do not call my short novels Novelettes, or even worse, Novellas. Novelette is classical usage for a trivial, dime-novel sort of thing; Novella is a slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything. Please call my books by their right names...” However we choose to categorize these stories, it is easy to see why they are still being read today, almost seventy years after they were first published, and why they solidify Porter’s reputation.

The first and last stories in Pale Horse, Pale Rider share a main character, Miranda, who is portrayed in “Old Mortality,” the first story, as a child growing up in the shadows of her almost legendary Aunt Amy, a beauty who died young but still seems to be the family “star.” Miranda and her sister spend much of their childhood trying to unravel the legend of their aunt’s life and to make some sense of all the family personalities involved in her history, including that of their own father. As is always the real strength of Porter’s fiction, this story is filled with interesting characters and astute observations about the dynamics of family life.

The book’s last story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” centers again on Miranda, now a young newspaper columnist struggling to make a living completely on her own during the trying times of World War I. Porter captures the home front atmosphere well, including the often overzealous characters who tried to shame their fellow citizens into buying war bonds they could not always afford and the friction between the young men still at home and the women who had been left behind by their own soldier husbands, sons and boy friends. But her story centers on the flu epidemic that so devastated the world during the war years. Her description of the surreal dreams and confusion Miranda experiences in her struggle to survive an attack of the flu is an intense, and sometimes tiring, experience for the reader.

But it is the middle short novel, “Noon Wine,” that is my favorite. “Noon Wine” takes place on a tiny Texas farm between 1896 and 1905. As the story opens, the farm is going nowhere and its owner resents the fact that his sickly wife has insisted upon expanding into the dairy business. Even on such a small scale, this lazy man is not at all happy with the daily requirements of tending to his milk cows. His savior arrives in the person of a foreign drifter willing to work for low wages while practically running the farm for its owner. Several years later when a stranger comes to the farm asking questions about the drifter, events suddenly go out of control to the extent that lives are changed forever. Nothing that happens is black and white and Porter does a remarkable job in presenting all the gray tones involved in the situation.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an impressive collection that should not be missed by Katherine Anne Porter fans. At the very least, pick up a copy of the book long enough to read “Noon Wine.” You will be happy that you did.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. You have me intrigued. I need to read these.

    And, we share seven out of ten books others love but we hate. Just for the record.

  2. I found an old copy of this at a library sale after reading about title story (which appeals to me very much). I've yet to read it, but your post makes me want to push it up the pile (especially as the stories are fairly short). I've never read her, but I do get the feeling she is an important author that I shouldn't ignore.

  3. This is one of the books where I remember exactly where I was when I read it: Wichita Falls, Texas. Late summer or early fall of 1987. It was a library copy. I was blown away by this book of short novels. Time for a reread!

  4. Let me know what you think, C.B. These are "classics," IMO.

  5. Danielle, I suspect that you will like the three. The middle one is the most straightforward one, style-wise, but the other two are very good, also.

  6. Bybee, sounds like the book made a huge impression on you. That's cool. :-)