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Book Review: 'Wild Horses Of The Summer Sun'

Tory Bilski could have called her well-written and witty memoir of riding horses in northern Iceland “Wild Horses of the Midnight Sun,” but in naming it “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun,” shows her writing creds: the alliteration effectively plays on the popular image many people associate with this starkly beautiful land of lupine fields and black volcanic sand banks – not to mention Johnny Mercer’s lyrics in that old jazz standard, “Midnight Sun.” Like Mercer, Bilski evokes a nostalgic warmth for what is gone but indelibly remembered because it was so affecting. 

In “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun” the love is for Icelandic horses and the country, not far from the Arctic Circle. An unusual destination when Bilski started going years ago, having heard about the horses from a woman who owned a horse farm in the Berkshires. The marvel of this moving, funny, episodic narrative is that Bilski turns living on a horse farm in Iceland with other women for a week every June into a universal story. You don’t have to love horses, riding or Iceland in order to appreciate this fine memoir.

The subject may be the small Icelandic horses with their two extra gaits, long manes and thick hides, but the theme is revival of spirit, reclamation of the soul...if only for a while. From the very first time Bilski goes, she’s obsessed, a girl again, smitten. As the book’s epigraph from Virginia Woolf puts it: “Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us,” the impulse “to gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin.” 

So there she was in Connecticut in 1999 – Victoria Bilski, in her mid-40s, relatively happy, secure, with a nice job at Yale, but feeling, well, “ordinary.” And then she was in Iceland, meeting up with eight women, all, save one, strangers. The casual friend she had known from riding horses in the states had gone to Thingeyrar and told her about the horse farm there. But why Iceland, why horses, why women, why her? 

The answers change as the years go by and women new to the “once-a-year gig” join the group. Originally a nine-member collection of different ages and financial circumstances, varying personalities and health issues, psychological as well as physical – the women are differentiated in scenes, full of dialogue, like in a stage play.    

The love of horses rules. It’s boredom, curiosity, fear of complacency, not need for diversionary therapy, that drive the author to want to ride horses in Iceland. And it’s a sense of time’s winged chariot at her back, as well as a fondness for two of the women who come back each year, that also motivates the author to return and finally write about the experience. 

The memoir engages not just because of the fascinating lore about Iceland – its people, history, myths, horses and their place in the economy of the country – because of Bilski’s poetic gifts, unsentimental observation of others and modest, self-mocking tone. Iceland is now a hot spot. When Bilski first visited in 2001, there were 20,000 tourists a year; now that number surpasses 2 million. “At some point,” she writes, “you lose whatever it is that makes your heart beat wild. It doesn’t have to be a horse, or a particular country, but we all need our Iceland thing.” Do we ever.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.