Blind Your Ponies
Stanley Gordon West
400 pages, softcover: $14.95.
Algonquin Books, 2011.
Willow Creek, the Montana town at the heart of Stanley Gordon West's new novel, Blind Your Ponies, is home to the Broncos, a high school basketball team on a losing streak. It's also a way station for adults escaping their pasts, and the basketball team's quest for the state championship mirrors the struggles of the townspeople, turning a familiar David-and-Goliath fable into an intricate look at a community slowly awakening to newfound hopes. As the ragtag team members discover unexpected reserves within themselves, they encourage other locals, whose painful experiences include terminal illness, a child's death and memories of a shooting. Together, the people of Willow Creek come to realize "Good happens, every morning that the sun rises, every night that the moon shines, every moment that the earth turns."
Some Western archetypes appear (a lone fugitive, a bullying cowboy), and a Norwegian exchange student is employed for humor, but most characters are sharply drawn, particularly Elizabeth Chapman, the grandmother of one player, and Sam Pickett, English teacher and head coach. Chapman's lively, eccentric personality -- she's accompanied by a foul-mouthed parrot as well as the team's unofficial mascot, a three-legged cat -- and Pickett's growing self-confidence (he draws inspiration both from Don Quixote's "impossible dream" and a burgeoning romance) help strengthen the team when harsh revelations are made. Both Chapman and Pickett have suffered violence, but rather than brooding on the past, they focus on those in their care.
The unusual title derives from a legend about Crow Indians returning from a hunt. After discovering their families destroyed by smallpox, the hunters deliberately blind their ponies and ride off a cliff, in an act that can be read as either despair or as a heroic leap of faith that they will rejoin their lost loved ones. Both interpretations appear in the novel to great effect. West asks readers to ponder the meaning of victory, emphasizing that it is more than a reward for "playing hard with a chance to win." It is also found in being magnanimous toward family and neighbors, and in "giving your all." West reminds us that even apparent misfits have reason to persevere. It's a welcome, unabashedly upbeat message with which to begin the year.