In the Shadow of Horse

In the Shadow of Horse
In the Shadow of Horse

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Swift Dam, last best novel review

"Swift Dam," the new novel by veterinarian and writer Sid Gustafson, is a beautifully evocative exploration of memory and landscape, history and generational relationships. It is set on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where Sid grew up as part of the prolifically creative Gustafson clan.
Order Swift Dam

The guts of the book are the ruminations of Oberly and Vallerone on life, love and mortality. Vallerone, apparently subject to some kind of sleep disorder, has trouble keeping his dreams separate from real life, or disentangling real history from myth and misremembrance.
The point seems to be that we all are disordered when we try to reconstruct the past, that we all live to some extent in a waking dream.
The book is also full of veterinary particulars, which might sound dry but are anything but. Vallerone is an old-fashioned healer who does much of his diagnosis and doctoring with his hands—hence the nickname “Fingers”—and who is a proponent of the Blackfeet way of raising and caring for horses.
Sid, who in his own practice specializes in the care of thoroughbred race horses, goes into loving detail about the proper care of livestock, and he takes several detours to damn the damage done to animals by modern ranching techniques and the scourge of using drugs to treat every ailment.
Sid writes of veterinary medicine, and much else, with a poetic voluptuousness, as in this description of the aftermath of a cesarean birth: “The new mother heaves a sigh of relief as the calf exits her incised womb. Doc elevates the calf to drain her wet lungs, and lays the neonate out and revives the baby, too long inside. He clamps her umbilicus to make her inhale, and inhale the little creature does, taking in first air, continuing to inhale, gestating nine months to inhale. Fingers threads his needle with catgut suture and the newborn sits to her sternum and issues a faint bawl. He stitches the mother back together, the newborn flapping her ears, stars singing hallelujah.”
Sid also knows the Blackfeet, whom he grew up around up on the family ranch. He writes of Blackfeet past and present with a clear understanding of the indignities they have suffered, but also with an unsentimental appreciation of what they might teach those who care to listen.

Toward the end of the book, Vallerone “watches the new dam through the drizzle, his bones pained by the rain, joints in need of ambulation. He walks, walks to lubricate his joints, to stiffen his bones, to condition his muscles. He knows locomotion is the key to longevity. To keep living, one must keep moving. All of the animals taught him that to move is to live. All becomes dependent on locomotion in the end. When you stop moving, you stop living. When the water stops flowing, all is over.”
True words, for sure. The Gustafson children lost both their parents in the past few years, but Sid and his his siblings don’t seem to be slowing down in the least.
Details: “Swift Dam,” by Sid Gustafson, published by Open Books, 2016. 152 pages, $15.95; ebook, $6.99.

Dr Gustafson is a practicing veterinarian, equine behavior educator, and novelist. The application of behavior science enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Behavioral and nutritional strategies enrich the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses who are willing to learn and perform.

Dr Gustafson's novels, books, and stories