A drawback to amateur memoirs is the writer's inability to tell a story, no matter how extraordinary it might be. How often, in my years in publishing, I'd hear about someone's "fascinating" life. And yet they were incapable of relaying it with any finesse or style, thus turning a fascinating life into a dull one.
Not so with this incredible memoir, which I would place on a par with Strayed's "Wild" and MacDonald's "H Is For Hawk." Rita Zoey Chin suffered at the hands of her parents and later with predatory adults in ways we in this country prefer to ignore. Instead, we incarcerate, and she suffered that as well. Her only hope was to run. So from the age of eleven on, Rita ran away, sleeping in stairwells or empty cars, struggling to find food in any way possible, begging for help from friends and strangers alike. Each episode would end with her back home, being beaten again, traumatized emotionally and physically.
All of this is survivable, and she does survive, and yet at age thirty-five, happily married and living the life she had always dreamed of, she is suddenly hammered by panic attacks, which become so debilitating she's unable to leave the beautiful house she and her husband just moved into. The runaway is hamstrung, and that immobility frightens her to death.
Chin refers to her childhood self as a runaway with a mixture of derision and pride. As a young girl, she hears the sound of hoofbeats in her mind, and longs for the wild, galloping freedom they represent. But when she meets Claret the horse, who will become her salvation in many ways, he is himself troubled by a possibly rough past, and certainly by some untreated physical ailments. Claret requires a presence of mind on Rita's part, which precludes running away or freezing in panic. When he spooks at falling ice in the barn and tosses her to the dirt, he returns to her and puts his nose down on her helmet. His breath reassures her and she climbs on him again - a major accomplishment for this runaway rider and for her fearful horse. It's clear they need each other, and that the bond between horse and woman is stronger than the trauma they both have faced:
"I stood beside him in the paddock and looked up at the pine trees. He seemed to be looking, too, both of us standing so still. Sometimes a breeze would flutter his mane, and I'd think, You wild, wild thing."
As with Helen MacDonald, Rita Zoey Chin is a poet, and her sense of lyricism and rhythm is prominent throughout the book. But she's as much a storyteller, compelling us to read, even as we cringe at the monsters she faced. We know she made it out alive and well, and we know the mutual devotion she shares with Claret will beat off the panic they both confront. How such broken lives are mended is what propels the reader. This fascinating life makes for a fascinating read.