The reviewer is a Washington free-lance writer.
Quietly, over the past five years, T. Alan Broughton has published three well-crafted novels that explore the complexities of modern family life. The first two, "A Family Gathering" and "Winter Journey," were Bildungsromane about teen-age boys who quarrel with their parents and have affairs -- actual and platonic -- with older women. With "The Horsemaster," Broughton chooses a maturer theme, concentrating on the troubled lives of adults and the threads that inescapably bind them to the past.
Broughton selects a rather sensational premise for his narrative, but one seldom treated in fiction: A 24-year-old woman, adopted at birth, sets out to find her natural parents after her adoptive parents have died in an airplane crash. It is to Broughton's credit that he handles the subject with dignity.
Lewis Beede, the main character and the horsemaster of the title, sees an unexpected part of his past walk through his door one night in the person of Miriam Sternberg. "I'm your daughter," she announces unceremoniously; then, as if to assert her claim to the title, she moves unasked into Lewis' one-room cabin in the Adirondacks.
Although he is himself something of a nonconformist, Lewis finds his daughter a conundrum. He is embarrassed when she calmly walks around nude in his cabin; he is put off by her marijuana-smoking; and he has a lingering suspicion of her motives for searching out her parents. The townspeople that Lewis has known all his life raise their eyebrows at Miriam because she has "lived in a commune," but gradually they accept her.
Miriam proves to be more, however, than just a peculiar outsider in an isolated community. She is a flesh-and-blood reminder of a past Lewis had given up on -- he was a 21-year-old would-be actor in New York when she was born. Through her very presence and the innocent, but probing, questions she asks about her parents, she forces Lewis to confront his past and to reevaluate his circumstances in middle age.
At 45, he can look back on a moderately eventful but unremarkable life. His strongest memories are of a father he fled but who gave him his love of horses and the outdoors. Prompted by his growing introspection, Lewis realizes that, even as adults, many people lead lives that are aimless and out of control. His brother, trying to overcome the same middle-aged malaise, says of their volatile father, "For all his shifting in and out of rage and silence, I never thought he did not know what he was doing."
After the reappearance of his daughter, Lewis' life becomes increasingly centered on her. He even accompanies her across the country in an effort to find her mother. It is ironic that Miriam, first an unwanted baby and then an orphan, should exert such a strong influence over others. A little awed at her unaccustomed sense of power, she remarks before meeting her mother for the first time, "Did you ever think how odd this is, to be lying here about to do something to someone's life, and only a short distance away she has no idea at all, not even a vague premonition that her life might be completely changed." When she and Lewis return to the Adirondacks, their lives are still troubled, but their reacquaintance with the past has given them new hope.
An approachable and well-written novel, "The Horsemaster" is also, in the end, a somewhat uneven accomplishment. In style and theme, Broughton resembles, say, Wallace Stegner and Frederick Busch in the way he depicts the unexpected or unexamined complexities in the lives of ordinary people in the overlooked corners of America. Unfortunately, Broughton presents too little of their daily working lives and too much of their memories, brooding and dreaming to convince us of their ordinariness. The result is an overly psychological picture of people whose primary concerns are probably much more humdrum than Broughton allows them to be.
In his main character, Lewis Beede, Broughton has given us a sharply drawn portrait of a complex man in a circumscribed world. But for some reason Broughton has made him strangely anachronistic: He has no car, he still walks through the snow to his outhouse, and he raises draft horses at a time when their main function is purely ornamental. Lewis' name is also a little too obviously reminiscent of another long-suffering country fellow, George Eliot's Adam Bede.
In spite of these lapses, Broughton writes with unusual sensitivity on the emotional subject of relations between adopted children and their natural parents. He shows us that our old convictions are sometimes inconclusive and changeable, influenced by forces that we can neither understand nor control.