Riding a horse has often been used as a metaphor for power and dominance, but two new books flip the script. Rough Magic ($25, Catapult), a memoir about a Mongolian horse race, and Aloha Rodeo ($28, William Morrow), a historic dive into the culture of Hawaiian cowboys, look at the connection between horses and humans when both are competing against long odds.
Lara Prior-Palmer wasn’t thinking about winning when she signed up for the Mongol Derby, a seven-day, 600-plus mile race where competitors ride a series of 25 Mongolian ponies. She was 19, she’d been fired from her gap-year nanny job, and she was antsy for an adventure, or at least a way to channel her pent-up energy. Rough Magic starts with her rash decision to sign up, and things don’t get any less impulsive after that.
Incredibly, she ends up winning, becoming the first woman to do so and the youngest-ever finisher. But the story largely ignores those accolades. Instead, to the book’s great benefit, Prior-Palmer chronicles the ups and downs of the race, from raging stomach flu to jet-fast ponies streaking across the Mongolian plains and all the ways an untrained teenager managed to win.
Rough Magic succeeds on its realness and Prior-Palmer’s unsparing analysis of herself and the scene. She’s a likable underdog, but she’s also kind of a shit, full of teenage comeuppance and emotion. She outlines the conflict between her inner world and the way the field perceives her. She can channel her ungainliness when she’s on a horse. Some of the most fun parts are when she realizes she might win and starts gunning for the leader, who Prior-Palmer portrays as an uptight Texan running on Gu packets and bravado. Even in the down moments, when one of her ponies is temporarily injured and she’s struggling, the fast-paced book is lyrical and full of tight, action-packed sentences. It reads like it came bursting out of her.
The underdog themes of Rough Magic mirror that of Aloha Rodeo, which takes place more than 100 years earlier, in 1908, when three Hawaiian cowboys (paniolos) showed up on the grounds of Wyoming’s Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. They were there to challenge the world’s best cowboys on what was, at the time, the biggest stage imaginable. In Hawaii, paniolos had been running cattle since British explorers first dropped the animals there in the 1790s, and a unique island-ranching culture had sprung up, removed from the rest of the world and reflective of the lush, rugged landscape. Mainland cowboys discounted their skills, but they were proven wrong on the rodeo grounds. Coauthors David Wolman and Julian Smith chronicle the rise of that island-ranch culture, which grew up independent of its mainland America counterpart and then became interwoven.
The rodeo is the central event that the book builds toward, but the backstory is deeper than the action. It follows two lines of the frontier: the boom and bust of rough cow towns like Cheyenne and the cultural changes Hawaii faced as it became an American territory and then a state. The three cowboys, Ikua Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Ka’au’a, illustrate the story of racism against Hawaiians and the ways that imperialism tries to flatten culture. Ultimately, like Prior-Palmer, their riding and roping speaks for them. In Wyoming, the Hawaiian cowboys proved their roping prowess to a crowd obsessed with the fantasy of the Wild West.
Succeeding against the odds is an often abused cliché of a narrative arc for a book, but in both of these, the winning almost feels like an afterthought (Prior-Palmer spends less than two pages on it). Instead we get the context and the struggle, the beauty of connecting to a horse and a landscape, and the pride of being competent and strong. The animal is more than just a metaphor.