Book Review:  Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland by Tory Bilski

I picked up this book at the library because it struck me as an unusual memoir and travel tale. It concerns a group of women who for over a decade journeyed to Iceland every year to get away from their stateside situations and ride the indigenous Icelandic horses on a remote ranch.

I don’t know much about Iceland, and I thought that it would be interesting to learn more. The only time I set foot in Iceland was back in my footloose hippy traveling days. I booked a round-trip ticket on Icelandic Airlines from New York to Luxembourg and back for the grand total of one hundred dollars. The plane stopped over in Iceland and we disembarked for a short time. That’s my only in-person experience in Iceland.

My experience with horses is limited as well. Apart from guided pony rides at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle when I was a young child, I only rode a horse once, in Mexico. My travel buddy and I had journeyed to visit a missionary hospital in the jungles of southeastern Mexico because my father sometimes did some voluntary dental work there, and the nuns in charge persuaded us to help them out by painting the exterior of the main building. It took us a few days. When we finished, one of the local doctors took us to his nearby ranch house for a meal and a horse ride. My friend handled the ride okay, and I did fine too as long as the horses maintained a leisurely pace. However, at a certain point the doctor’s stead broke into a gallop and the other horses, including mine, followed. I had negligible control as I clung to the reins and desperately tried not to fall off. That I didn’t have a horrific accident was purely a matter of chance.

The riders in this memoir, though, are extremely skilled. The author recounts how she fell in love with Icelandic horses when she came across a photo on the internet. A friend of hers invited her to come along on a yearly excursion to a horse ranch owned by a woman named Helga, and thereafter dropping her responsibilities as a wife and mother and heading off to Iceland became a summertime ritual. The memoir drags a bit when Bilski recounts the sometimes petty bickering of the six to eight women who stayed together in an isolated guesthouse and rode every day, but it picks up as she describes the awesome beauty of the stark countryside lit by the perpetual summer sun, the customs and peculiarities of the Icelandic people, and interesting tidbits of Icelandic history.

The beginning few chapters set the tone for the rest. The first long chapter takes place during the first van ride the women take on their way to the farm. They get lost, bicker, and stop multiple times for food. I almost set the book aside. But then they arrive at their destination. The tone changes as we meet Helga and the horses, encounter the grandeur of the open landscape, and learn more about the unique island to which these women are drawn every year.

In conclusion, I would say that if you manage to get past the first chapter, you will find yourself drawn into the narrative as you accompany an idiosyncratic group of travelers to a cold, moody, mystic, far-flung, and fascinating part of the world.

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