Prolific and award-winning Ojibway writer and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor returns with a new novel, his first full-length work of prose fiction for adults since 2010’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass.
One cold morning, a Toronto police officer walking home from his shift spies a curious piece of graffiti on a downtown wall, a drawing of an eye that seems eerie and familiar. As he tears away surrounding posters to see the larger image that the eye is part of, the officer, Ralph, is being watched by a homeless man with uncanny knowledge both of the inner lives of passersby and of how the image – that of a horse – came to be painted on the wall. Might that man be able to help Ralph solve the mystery of the drawing and also ease a burden the officer has long been carrying?
Years before, when he was growing up on a Southern Ontario First Nation reserve, Ralph’s mother had turned part of the kitchen wall into a chalkboard and encouraged her children and their friends to explore their artistic sides – a prize would be awarded for the best drawing. But it was no contest: right away, the prize went to Danielle, a quiet, friendless girl no one had taken much notice of until she drew a horse on the wall. Danielle’s horse was less drawn than created, possessing a power that no one properly understood. But when all this new attention brings Danielle’s troubled home life to light, her situation is made even more dangerous.
With Chasing Painted Horses, Taylor weaves together Ralph’s past and present to expand on ideas and characters that (as he explains in the book’s acknowledgements) have occupied his mind for decades. Indeed, he’s written about them before in the short story “Girl Who Loved Her Horses” and the play of the same name. The characters and settings are vividly imagined, and the plot proceeds with mounting suspense, although it’s slowed by extraneous prose and builds to something of an anticlimax. Nevertheless, readers will appreciate the touching depiction of family and friendship dynamics in childhood, and the novel’s suffusion with empathy makes it a worthwhile read.