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Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse": The history of our horse

"Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West" by Deanne Stillman Houghton Mifflin, 348 pp., $25 Just after Christmas in 1998...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse

in the American West"

by Deanne Stillman

Houghton Mifflin, 348 pp., $25

Just after Christmas in 1998, 34 wild horses were found shot to death near Reno, Nev. From the moment she heard the news, author Deanne Stillman knew the subject of her next book had presented itself.

Stillman was working at the time on what would become a best-seller, "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave," which covered the killings of two girls by a Marine shortly after the Gulf War. In the horse slayings, Marines were again involved; one, in fact, was stationed at Twentynine Palms, Calif. Stillman already knew this territory well — her latest book reveals that the new story was, once more, sad beyond understanding.

She would spend almost the next decade researching both the shootings, as well as the history of horses in the New World. Readers may know that conquistadors shipped horses across the Atlantic in the 16th century, but they may be unaware that North American fossil records show prehistoric equines — tiny eohippus, 10 to 20 inches tall, with four toes on its fore feet and three behind — lived and evolved here far earlier, having crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia only to have its descendants die out during the Pleistocene glaciation.

When true one-toed horses made landfall with the Spanish, some animals would contribute to the end of indigenous empires. Others escaped, were caught by Native Americans and soon "changed every aspect of Indian life." But at the same time, horses enabled westward expansion by colonists, setting up heartbreaking culture clashes that shaped the United States.

Stillman zooms in on this conflict, writing a long chapter about Custer, his last stand and Comanche, the Seventh Calvary horse touted — wrongly, she notes — as the battle's sole survivor. She follows with customary diligence the chronicle of Wild Bill Hickock and his theatrics both stateside and overseas, bogging the book down for roughly 100 pages.

Meanwhile, where are the mustangs?

Finally, Stillman catches stride, bringing to life the years from 1864-1886/7, when cattle drives triggered so many of the West's enduring romantic myths: faithful cow ponies, strong and silent cowpokes, dusty trails, starry nights. And the role of the mustang in the West's beloved, formulaic literature, such as Will James' "Smoky," an American classic.

Next, Stillman traces horses in movies and TV, with a final powerful 80 pages that examine contemporary mustangs, our American wild horses that have been so terribly mistreated.

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Throughout, Stillman is an excellent advocate whose authority, love and respect for her topic are moving. Not only is her book informative, but also timely. The past half-century has seen many ups and downs for mustangs, but never has there been a worse period than during the "false cowboy Bush" administration, which overturned protective legislation while condoning excessive roundups, sales to rendering plants for dog food and other products, and support for ranchers in land-use disputes, despite General Accountability Office studies that find domestic cattle damage natural resources far more than wild horses. These conflicts over dwindling range have allowed the slaughter of tens of thousands of horses and burros.

A circumspect writer passionate about her purpose can produce a significant gift for readers. Stillman's wonderful chronicle of America's mustangs is an excellent example.

Irene Wanner is a writer living in New Mexico.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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