Prairie Fire review of The Forest Horses
Reviewed by: Mary Barnes
Byrna Barclay is the author of several novels and a playscript. Her new novel, The Forest Horses, tells
the story of Russian and Swedish cultures, as well as the relationships of three women over the course
of fifty years.
The first story is that of Signe, who lives in present-day Saskatchewan. Haunted by the events
surrounding her birth, especially the family expression that she was “born on the ice,” grieving the
loss of her daughter and weighed down by the care involved for her brain-damaged son, she decides
the answer to the confusion in her life lies in her birth place—Russia.
As Signe sets out on her journey, she meets Kostja, an ornithologist whose knowledge of birds
awakens a part of her life she never knew existed. And as she travels, the story of her parents unfolds.
Rich in detail, it is a luminous tale set in Sweden and Russia during the Second World War. The past
story is the more vibrant one, acting as the centrepiece for the novel, while the present tale of Signe
serves as a frame.
Lena Bjornssons, Signe’s mother, lives on the island of Gotland with her parents, Gustaf and
Carolina. Bored with her existence, Lena “wants to go to Paris and learn joie de vivre, ride an elephant
in Nepal, discover the secret of the Sphinx in Egypt” (21). She doesn’t realize her life is about to
The day of the Midsummer’s Eve festival arrives and Lena can hardly contain her excitement,
but her mother suffers an epileptic seizure and her father orders Lena to stay home to tend to her
mother. To console herself, Lena visits the stables, where she has always found comfort with the
The ponies on the farm are the Gotlandsruss, descendants of the prehistoric ponies that have
existed since time immemorial. Half feral, they roam the wooded areas of the Lojsta moors. When
Lena goes for a walk, she inadvertently leaves the gate open and the horses follow her, led by her
Away from the farm, she encounters Pytor, the “Russian wearing a red star cap” (34). Long an
orphan and an outcast, he survives the harshness of poverty and the shortages of war by poaching. It
is this chance encounter with Pytor that will change Lena’s life and affect future events.
Barclay’s characters feel real, especially those in the past story. One of the author’s methods is the use
of several narrators, who bring different perspectives to the novel. The voice of Maryushka, Pytor’s
sister, is an engaging one. Surrounded by German soldiers during the siege of Leningrad, she begins
an existence filled with horror and deprivation. The depiction of the brutality of war is vivid and
Barclay’s portrayal is uncompromising as she shows the ultimate in human desperation: “A
milkman’s wagon lies overturned . . . its horse attacked by toothless babushki with butcher knives and
grim-faced, wild-eyed young mothers . . .” (253)
Maryushka’s courage and resilience contribute to her survival. And in one instance, weak from
hunger, she rescues a baby, barely alive, from its frozen mother’s arms, indicating there is still room
Thor is also a character, albeit a horse. One of the Gotland ponies, his story is one of love,
loyalty and sacrifice. His story adds a magical touch to the book, connecting characters, and the past
and present stories. Many stories rise up in the aftermath of war, but Barclay’s rendering of Thor and
the rest of the ponies as they cross Lake Lagoda in a deep Russian winter is unique and spell-binding.
Images play an important role as well, one of them pertaining to horses and birds. A description
that appears in the latter portion of the book is particularly moving. Signe has returned to Canada.
Sitting on a bench, she observes “a great white bird . . . A hole in its breast diminishes with each
wind-breath, until it closes; healed.” And in the same paragraph, she says “spectres appear . . .
silhouettes white and heaving large, frost and snow puff up from high-stepping, fast-flying hoofs”
Through these imaginative visuals Signe is able to realize that her parents and her aunt were
survivors; that she is a survivor. Her heart and mind lift; she knows who she is. She knows too she is
capable of moving forward. And that is what Barclay’s book does: move us towards illumination. !