It hardly seems fair that one writer should be so adept in so many styles. But with each new book, Kootenay Lake’s Luanne Armstrong proves herself to be a masterful juggler of genres. Poetry, fiction, memoir and other non-fiction, each of her creations makes full use of her chosen genre.
Armstrong’s latest book, Morven and the Horse Clan, is no exception. Published by Great Plains Teen Fiction, the novel is purportedly aimed at teens, more specifically at teenaged girls. But don’t be distracted by the label. Morven and the Horse Clan is suitable for readers of all ages, even those who will admit to be rapidly approaching their senior years.
On a recent evening I had just finished a crime fiction novel and was alternating between my next choices — Gogol’s peculiar parody called The Nose and an audio version of Pushkin’s poem, Eugene Onegin. Wanting a break from the Russians, I picked up the copy of Morven and the Horse Clan that Armstrong had dropped on my desk a few days earlier. I was captivated from the first paragraph.
The tale begins in 3500 BC. Morven, a red-headed teenage girl, is something of an outcast among her dark-haired nomadic clan. Her sense of displacement from her family and tribe is hardly unusual among teens, and neither is her need to belong, somewhere. She finds comfort among animals and finds she has a natural affinity with the non-humans around her.
The setting is Afghanistan, where nomadic tribes live in tents made from animal skins. They travel by foot, or shank’s pony as my dad used to say. Morven’s tribe is facing a dilemma. A drought stretches on for several years and once easy access to water, plants and animals is becoming a life and death challenge. Their decision is not an easy one—wait out the drought in hope of rain, or move on and risk the unknown, with no certainty that water and food can be found before the tribe perishes.
While desperation increases, Morven finds distraction in a herd of horses. Some mysterious force pushes her to find ways to gain their confidence and then to learn to ride one. That one seemingly small step triggers a series of circumstances that couldn’t have been foreseen, but that trigger changes within her tribe, and with its interactions with others. Human history of going to war is closely tied to the domestication of horses.
I read about two-thirds of the book that evening, then awoke at 5 a.m. with Morven on my mind (which would be a good song title, come to thing of it). I didn’t move from bed until I had finished.
Later that day I sent a message to Armstrong suggesting that it felt like she must have been channeling the story as she wrote it. There wasn’t a single word that didn’t ring true, I said.
So what makes Morven and the Horse Clan such a satisfying read? First and foremost, it’s Morven herself. She’s a convincing representation of what most human beings go through in their teen years as they struggle to find their place in the world around them. Morven is a strong character who doesn’t always understand why she feels compelled to push the boundaries, but she has sufficient strength to let herself go with her instincts instead of holding back and taking an easier, and inevitably unhappier, path.
Armstrong does a remarkable job of putting the reader right into the story. Somehow, without obsessively describing the environment she gives just enough detail to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. The result is very visual reading experience.
As someone who routinely reads each of Armstrong’s books as they become available, I find myself in eager anticipation of each one, regardless of its genre. And I’ve been as satisfied by the books aimed at younger audiences as with her memoirs and non-fiction. So I was pleased with her response when I asked whether the subtle “Book One” on the book’s back cover means Morven’s story hasn’t come to an end. Yes, she replied, the publisher wants at least two more books to make a series. That’s good news for the author, but more so for Armstrong’s legions of readers.
Black Bear Books is hosting a book launch featuring Luanne Armstrong and friends on Thursday, October 17th at 7:00 p.m.