Colorado writer Lisa Jones was a freelance journalist on assignment for Smithsonian magazine when she first met Stanford Addison, a charismatic horse trainer on the Wind River Arapaho reservation near Lander, Wyoming. Addison doesn’t match the typical image of a horse trainer: he is a quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair for over twenty years following a car accident. Addison “gentles” horses rather than breaks them, offering instructions from outside the corral, and even working with the horses himself. And Addison is also an Arapaho healer, hosting regular sweat lodges, praying for those who ask it of him, and communicating with spirits, good and bad.
Jones began her friendship with Addison as a skeptic about the spirit world, but she never doubted his healing powers.
Spiritually adrift in mid-life, she returned frequently to the Addison ranch, where Addison served as the center of a complicated family. In Broken: A Love Story, Jones tells the remarkable tale of Stan Addison’s life and work, investing it with detail that brings his world to vivid life for the reader. Through Jones’ hard-earned understanding of one Northern Arapaho family, the reader is given an inside glimpse into this culture. Despite their poverty, they lavish love on one another, others taking care of children when a parent dies or leaves, and pulling together in difficult times, which are heartbreakingly frequent.
Jones’ descriptions of the people and landscape are precise and arresting. Here she writes about the Addison men: “Stan and three of his brothers were sitting around his kitchen table. Four no-nonsense Addison noses. Four jackhammer jaws. Middle age doing its backhoe job on four sets of cheeks and brows.” And she describes the reservation with great clarity, as in this passage: “It was 1974, and by August the grass on the reservation had gone brown. But next to the river, the cottonwoods were as green as limes. When the breeze came up, their leaves clattered softly, flashing in the sun like pocket mirrors.”
Broken is also the story of how Jones came to join Stanford’s family, and how he helped her with her personal struggles. Jones interweaves her story with that of Stanford, and the contrast is stark. Jones is white, educated, and childless in a community where most aren’t educated beyond high school and have babies young. Jones was uprooted from Scotland to Denver when she was a child. Her father subsequently left her mother, who went on to marry several more times. Jones drifted from one relationship to another, rejecting a handful of marriage proposals, and finally found a keeper in her sensitive, intelligent boyfriend Peter. The problem is that during the course of the book, Peter doesn’t know if he wants to be with Lisa, another woman he meets during one of her extended trips to Wyoming, or become a Buddhist monk. This sends Jones into a tailspin.
Broken is strongest in its most reportorial moments. Jones’ depth of understanding of her subject, her length of engagement with the people she writes about and the clarity with which she discusses them is reminiscent of the work of Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who specializes in profiling people living in poverty. Jones brings a cast of characters to life for the reader, from a blond, burn-damaged “half-melted cowboy” named Moses to the group of black-wearing, hip-hop loving teenagers that live with Addison.
Unlike Boo, Jones inserts herself into the narrative, which works well for the most part, although it occasionally detracts. For example, in one chapter about the funeral of a teenage member of the family, killed in a knife fight, Jones writes this description of the young man’s body:
“I got to the coffin. Jevon was wearing a black shirt and a bolo tie with a round beaded clasp…On his chest was a pack of Newports, a box of Marlboro Lights, a bottle of men’s cologne, and a CD. His hand was wrapped around a cigarette. The details hit me one after another, but I was numb inside.”
Those details are strong enough to stand on their own. The last sentence in which Jones describes her own feelings in a common way, “numb,” is unnecessary, and diffuses the focus of the writing. Jones handles another funeral scene, of Stanford’s brother Cody, a young father that Jones came to know well, with restraint.
Jones’ accounts of her own love life and romantic attractions also go on longer than necessary at times. They are integral to the story, as she’s writing about her place within Addison’s family as well as the family itself, but less is more. Jones might have been going for an Eat, Pray, Love-type confessional romantic/spiritual tell-all, but in Elizabeth Gilbert‘s book the parts about her love life were always funny, and in Jones’ they are serious.
Despite its few flaws, Broken: A Love Story does an admirable job of transporting the reader to its dusty, wind-swept world, and profiling Stanford Addison, a distinctive individual of great courage and compassion whose story might never have been told if it hadn’t been for Jones’ dedicated work.
Lisa Jones will appear at the Center for The Arts in Jackson, Wyoming, on June 12 at 7 p.m. Read an excerpt from Broken here.