Stanley Gordon West's latest novel is set in the early 1990s in the small eastern Montana town of Willow Creek, which is described by character Peter Strong, a 16-year-old recent St. Paul transplant, as, "hard to tell where the fields and cow pastures ended and the town began. There just wasn't anything there." What he did find there, however, were kindred spirits, either raised or settled in a town where the high school basketball team had not won a single game for more than five years.
And it's this team that is the focus of "Blind Your Ponies," an elegiac title derived from the Crow legend in which warriors return to camp to find their loved ones dead from smallpox, and, overcome with grief, they blind their ponies to lead them over a cliff so that they may join their families.
Led by Kierkegaard-quoting coach (and English teacher) Sam Pickett, who escaped to Willow Creek after his wife was murdered -- we learn in the book's first few pages -- the team includes Peter (whose Minnesota parents recently divorced, sending him west to live with his grandmother), Olaf (a 6-foot-11 Norwegian exchange student who has never played basketball before), Tom (whose nasty father is known for his drunken rages) and Dean (a naive freshman whose greatest pleasures throughout much of the book are team visits to McDonald's).
As the novel unfolds, Coach Pickett transforms this ragtag team into a driving force of Montana basketball. And as this happens, West brings to life a lively cast of supporting characters, including a one-handed grandmother (with a three-legged cat and an expletive-spewing parrot); a fellow teacher and developing love interest to the coach, Diana (who has also escaped her own tragic loss), and Amos, who has lost a son in war (which has caused him to never again pay taxes).
West, who lives in Shakopee, self-published "Blind Your Ponies" in 2005 and sold more than 40,000 copies, thanks to his diligence and marketing skills; now, Algonquin Books hopes to reach a wider audience. Some evidence of this earlier venture haunts the book, as tighter editing and fewer similes could have condensed and strengthened this fairly predictably triumphant novel. Still, West has created a moving story, and one that moves along quickly, tying the lessons of basketball to those of life. As Coach Pickett says, "Maybe after so many losses along the way we all need to win at something," a sentiment so true after all.
Jim Carmin lives in Portland, Ore., and reviews fiction for the Oregonian and the Star Tribune, and poetry for the Cerise Press and Solar Mirage.