Riding Barranca by Laura Chester Riding Barranca, Finding freedom and forgiveness on the midlife trail by Laura Chester

Published in 2013
Trafalgar Square Books
North Pomfret, Vermont, 05053reviewed by Lyn Lifshin
ISBM 978-1-5076-578-0



 Review by Lyn Lifshin

As soon as I saw the stunning, breathtaking cover of Laura Chester's Riding Barranca, the startlingly beautiful image of the horse and woman moving through rippling water, I felt I was in for an amazing journey. The horse and woman, moving as one, reflecting, mirroring the magical ride that's about to unfold.

In Riding Barranca Chester lets us inside her world where "the beauty and silence of nature --moon glow with "the enormous upper lip of the golden saucer ascending above the mountain--- in full form, balanced on the mountain line and rising surely, revealing  its golden appearance" tangle with the complicated, often searing family relationships and estrangements. These passages, italicized, are a counterpoint between the soothing "listening to the horse's hooves on the hard packed road" and memories of being knifed with verbal assaults from her mother--- "whose genes are in you." 
In another memory she writes about “when my parents were passing through New York and I wanted to have a meal with them -- my mother's response was 'this is our time to be together, Laura, we're only seeing the people we really want to see.' " And when asked to stay in the pink room, her mother responds "But that 's a nice room…"  Like a Greek chorus, her words move the reader though years of intense landscapes, inner and outer journeys, sometimes to familiar and almost forbidden, scary vistas she can't help but come back from changed. The calm landscapes with "the scent of juniper and sweet fern that smell mildly like peppermint when crushed by horse hooves," and the still painful memories move like dancers on a dance floor-- first one leads, then the other.

I didn't want this book to end which is always a good sign that I am in the presence of intensely beautiful writing and magic.  A cremation on the banks of the Ganges takes her back to the cremation of her mother in Wisconsin. A risky horse ride in India reminds her of a time when her father rode into a bull pasture with a bull whip in his hand while she was on a pony, a trigger for anxiety. In the calmness and ease of a good horse, she sees things she hadn't before, that she has learned to say no. Through landscapes, often silent and refreshing, sacred as a church, family history reshapes itself like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope, always there but seen at a different angle.

I can't imagine anyone not fascinated by the connection between humans and animals Chester explores. Dogs and cats, not just horses, can soothe, console and connect. Anyone close to an animal knows these creatures merge with the history of one's life and bring emotions that are rare and powerful.

The mother and daughter relationship, central to the Chester's year of watching her mother go through the last stages of Alzheimer's disease, is revealed in some of the most moving passages-- extremely intense, often painful, heartbreaking and raw and singing as they must have been years before. Having edited Tangled Vines, a collection of mother and daughter poems, I was not surprised how powerful Chester's writing is about the mother-daughter relationship: intense, ambivalent, passionate, difficult, fierce, never easy or simple, a relationship that never ends, not even with death. At the heart of the best connection, there is always some darkness, envy, ambivalence, in the worst, almost always a longing, an attempt to win the mother's love, approval. Riding her beautiful, beloved foxtrotter, Barranca, Chester takes us deep into the forest of many family relationships with their estrangements, reconciliations that no family is without--betrayals, rage, with their sickness and death as well as support and comfort.

Like the dappled light Chester and her horse move under, the book goes from joyous moments laughing with girl friends under the stars, to hurtful, terrible darkness that could trap a less strong, stubbornly determined woman, one who has survived literal and emotional falls. Riding "purges the daily grumble and allows our spirits to soar.." road."
So many examples of beauty and strength and sensuousness: "The woodland surrounded by thin, dark skinned birch like trees and if you break off a twig and give it a chew it tastes vaguely like root beer." Later, "There is the faint smell of grape on the road home followed by fresh tar and then mown fields. It is so mild and blissful that I feel I could almost fall asleep in the saddle."  So many beautiful passages about Indian summer --- "gold leaves still warm," "the dark shine of Barranca's skin in the afternoon sun." Scenes in India-  "a woman carrying a red jar." I can see the "dark wood paneling and glass cabinets and the jewelry at the Gem Palace and the Blue moon over the Huachucas.

It is quite a ride with Laura Chester and Barranca. "While riding, memories so often surface and percolate. I wonder where these odd thoughts come from, similar to the musings of a twilight reverie arriving like unexpected house guests. Images arise …family members appear as if to remind us they will inhabit us forever."

One of the most beautiful passages of the book is toward the end when she thanks her mother for the good things. It is too long to quote all of it, but I can't end without a little: "Thank you for being honestly passionate, for remaining steadfast, marrying this man, leaping into an unknown world-- the cold, often hostile, uninviting North…thank you for the magical Christmases, the stockings and gifts beneath our tinsel laden tree. …Thank you for our wonderful homes, raising us in places of order and beauty…thank you for showing us emotion-- letting us know that love is not easy but it is always worth it.
She leaves us with what she's learned, that she wants to "live in the moment where (she) wants to be." This is a beautiful, special book. It will touch everyone who reads it. I couldn't recommend it more.

Review by Lyn Lifshin

Her many books include several books about race horses: The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian, Barbaro: Beyond Brokenness, from Texas Review Press who will publish Secretariat: The Red Freak, the Miracle in 2014 and a chapbook, Lost in the Fog from Finishing Line Press.