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All the Pretty Horses - Living on the "Border"


  • Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.

  • I can normally tell how intelligent a man is by how stupid he thinks I am.

  • There is no forgiveness. For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a woman cannot. She cannot.

  • When I was in school I studied biology. I learned that in making their experiments scientists will take some group--bacteria, mice, people--and subject that group to certain conditions. They compare the results with a second group which has not been disturbed. This second group is called the control group. It is the control group which enables the scientist gauge the effect of his experiment. To judge the significance of what has occurred. In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who o not know history are condemned to repeat it. I don't believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God--who knows all that can be known--seems powerless to change.

  • That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid neither horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.

  • Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing.


When you were young, did you ever want to leave your frustrations and set off on an adventure? You might have ended up finding more than you bargained for.

The 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses is a tale of love, loss, and friendship in 1949. The story begins in West Texas, with John Grady Cole and his best friend Lacey Rawlins setting off toward Mexico and the adventure of their young lives.

As the boys struggle through trials far beyond what they expected, the novel explores the themes of loss of innocence, violence, and loyalty. We also see how horses symbolize their manhood and becomes all that they have left from the experience.


Loss of innocence is a recurring theme in All the Pretty Horses. It is evident at the beginning when John Grady is furious that his mother has no intention of allowing him to take over the ranch, but instead intends to sell.

At first John Grady manages to hold on to his belief that people are good. When Rawlins warns that Blevins will be trouble, John instists that everything will be okay.

We see John Grady's further loss of innocence in his relationship with Alejandra. He is unprepared for what is to follow as a result of his love for her. Rawlins, the more grounded of the two, is convinced that this will cause John Grady difficulties, but John Grady is too in love to listen.

John Grady and Rawlins face quite the shock when the boys are arrested and accused of stealing by men who saw them take back Blevins' horse, when they see Blevins shot, and when both spend a violent time in prison.

We see further examples of loss of innocence when John Grady speaks with Duena Alfonsa, and she tells him that in return for paying for his release from prison, Alejandra has agreed to never see him again. She gives him a horse, and he leaves the hacienda. When he meets Alejandra for the last time, he pleads with her to marry him, but she refuses. When he returns home the innocence of his boyhood is no longer.


We have come to associate the wild west with guns as the symbols of manhood, but that is not the case in the novel. In the novel, a horse is what makes a man, a man. A man is judged on his horse, his training and breaking of it, and his care for it. Most of a man's waking hours are spent with his horse as his only companion. A horse becomes an extension of the rider; to lose a horse is to lose everything. When Blevens loses his horse during a thunderstorm, the boys head out to retrieve it.

We see the boys characteristics reflected in their horses. John Grady's horse, Redbo, is strong and dependable, where Rawlins's horse, Junior, is more prone to skittishness.

John Grady proved he was adept at training horses when he worked for Senior Rocha, and it is his experience with horses brings him the promotion and the girl, but his horse is a more stable relationship than either people or jobs. At the end of the novel, he heads back to the town where he was jailed and takes the captain hostage so he can take back the horses, regaining his manhood before heading home.


John Grady Cole, the last in a long line of west Texas ranchers, is, at sixteen, poised on the sorrowful, painful edge of manhood. When he realizes the only life he has ever known is disappearing into the past and that cowboys are as doomed as the Comanche who came before them, he leaves on a dangerous and harrowing journey into the beautiful and utterly foreign world that is Mexico. In the guise of a classic Western, All the Pretty Horses is at its heart a lyrical and elegiac coming-of-age story about love, friendship, and loyalty that will leave John Grady, and the reader, changed forever.

When his mother decides to sell the cattle ranch he has grown up working, John Grady Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins set out on horseback for Mexico, a land free of the fences and highways that have begun to invade west Texas, a land where the boys are not able to read the look in a man’s eye. As they approach the Rio Grande, they are joined by the youthful and mysterious Jimmy Blevins, whose fine horse, hot-blooded temper, and talent with a pistol are as certain an omen of trouble as the desolate and forbidding landscape stretching out before them.

In a violent and freakish thunderstorm, Blevins loses all his worldly possessions; and the foolhardy attempt to recover them soon brands the boys as horse thieves. On the run, they split up, with John Grady and Rawlins finding refuge on a hacienda where few questions are asked and a talent for breaking horses is still a source of honor, and where they fall into a routine as familiar to them as the shape of their saddles.

At night, John Grady rides the patron’s prized sire through the mountains beyond the hacienda in the company of Alejandra, the patron’s beautiful daughter. But in a land as bound by honor and reputation as this is, the white-hot love between John Grady and this girl is as dangerous as anything they will face.

When soldiers arrive to take John Grady and Rawlins away, the boys know it has nothing to do with Jimmy Blevins, but is instead because of some deeper, more elusive transgression that John Grady has committed in the name of love. With no one to plead their case, their fate is dire indeed. John Grady and Rawlins find themselves in a Mexican prison governed by stark violence. But in the hands of Cormac McCarthy this place takes on a dreamlike quality; it is not right or wrong, good or evil, but merely as inevitable a part of life as the sun setting in the West, something that must be faced in order for one to survive.

All the Pretty Horses is the first volume in the Border Trilogy (the second volume is entitled The Crossing; and the third, The Cities of the Plain), and this name implies that the text is as much about the arid and desolate landscapes and blood-red skies of the great Southwest as it is about the people who inhabit the region. Together the land and sky form a lyrical tapestry that colors and alters the narrative in subtle and unexpected ways.

John Grady’s journey leaves him wiser but saddened, yet out of this heartbreak comes the resilience of a man who has claimed his place in the world. Written with the lyricism that has made McCarthy one of the great American prose stylists, All the Pretty Horses is at once a bittersweet and profoundly moving tale of love, loss, and redemption and a stunning commentary on the nature of fate and the weight of manhood.


THE CANDLEFLAME and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

It was dark outside and cold and no wind. In the distance a calf bawled. He stood with his hat in his hand. You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said.

Inside the house there was no sound save the ticking of the mantel clock in the front room. He went out and shut the door.

Dark and cold and no wind and a thin gray reef beginning along the eastern rim of the world. He walked out on the prairie and stood holding his hat like some supplicant to the darkness over them all and he stood there for a long time.

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded

slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

She looked up from the stove when he came in and looked him up and down in his suit. Buenos dias, guapo, she said.

He hung the hat on a peg by the door among slickers and blanketcoats and odd pieces of tack and came to the stove and got his coffee and took it to the table. She opened the oven and drew out a pan of sweetrolls she'd made and put one on a plate and brought it over and set it in front of him together with a knife for the butter and she touched the back of his head with her hand before she returned to the stove.

I appreciate you lightin the candle, he said. Como? La candela. La vela. No fui yo, she said.

La senora? Claro. Ya se levanto? Antes que yo. He drank the coffee. It was just grainy light outside and Arturo was coming up

toward the house.



It begins with the candleflame: “the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” The candle lit for the funeral of young John Grady Cole’s grandfather. With his death comes change. The ranch, which both grandfather and grandson loved, will be sold. John Grady’s life in borderland Texas in the 1940s; horses, cattle, the sun “coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west”, will end. So he will ride, with his friend Lacey Rawlins, south to Mexico.

It’s the language as much as the story that makes this book so special. Birds impaled on cactus after a thunder storm: “Gray nameless birds espaliered in attitudes of stillborn flight or hanging loosely in their feathers. Some . . . still alive and they twisted on their spines. . . and cried out but the horsemen rode on.”

Rode on, John Grady, towards his fate. Falling in love with Alejandra, the daughter of Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal. The world he enters is merciless to those who transgress the laws of class and family. The boy, Blevins, whom he and Rawlins befriend, is accused of stealing a horse. Rough justice: “the pistol shot came from beyond the ebony trees. Not loud. Just a flat sort of pop. Then another.”

Don Héctor’s punishment, prison, awaits them. “They spent the whole of the first day fighting. . . every man was judged by a single standard and that was his readiness to kill.” The buying of a knife “a switchblade with the handles missing” will save him when his assailant, “not much older than he” attempts the coup de grace.

Shining through the savage cruelty, like the candleflame, is John Grady’s honour, integrity, and kindness.

ACROSS THE BORDER by Bruce Springsteen (1995)

Tonight my bag is packed

Tomorrow I'll walk these tracks

That will lead me across the border

Tomorrow my love and I

Will sleep beneath auburn skies

Somewhere across the border

We'll leave behind my dear

The pain and sadness we found here

And we'll drink from the Bravo's muddy water

Where the sky grows gray and wide

We'll meet on the other side

There, across the border

For you I'll build a house

High upon a grassy hill

Somewhere across the border

Where pain and memory

Pain and memory have been stilled

There, across the border

And sweet blossoms fill the air

Pastures of gold and green

Roll down into cool clear waters

And in your arms beneath open skies

I'll kiss the sorrow from your eyes

There, across the border

Tonight we'll sing the songs

I'll dream of you, my corazón

And tomorrow my heart will be strong

And may the saints blessing and grace

Carry me safely into your arms

There, across the border

For what are we

Without hope in our hearts

That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine

I know love and fortune will be mine

Somewhere across the border

  • What is this song about?

  • Who are the characters and why are they “crossing the border”?

  • Which direction are they taking?

  • Can we consider it a “current song”?

MEXICALI BLUES by Grateful Dead (1972)

Laid back in an old saloon, with a peso in my hand

Watchin' flies and children on the street

And I catch a glimpse of black-eyed girls who giggle when I smile

There's a little boy who wants to shine my feet

And it's three days ride from Bakersfield and I don't know why I came

I guess I came to keep from payin' dues

So instead I've got a bottle and a girl who's just fourteen

And a damn good case of the Mexicali Blues Yeh

Is there anything a man don't stand to lose

When the devil wants to take it all away?

Cherish well your thoughts, and keep a tight grip on your booze

'Cause thinkin' and drinkin' are all I have today

She said her name was Billy Jean and she was fresh in town

I didn't know a stage line ran from hell

She had raven hair, a ruffled dress, a necklace made of gold

All the french perfume you'd care to smell

She took me up into her room and whispered in my ear

Go on, my friend, do anything you choose

Now I'm payin' for those happy hours I spent there in her arms

With a lifetime's worth of the Mexicali Blues, yeh

Is there anything a man don't stand to lose

When the devil wants to take it all away?

Cherish well your thoughts, and keep a tight grip on your booze

'Cause thinkin' and drinkin' are all I have today

And then a man rode into town, some thought he was the law

Billy Jean was waitin' when he came

She told me he would take her, if I didn't use my gun

I'd have no one but myself to blame

I went down to those dusty streets, blood was on my mind

I guess that stranger hadn't heard the news

'Cause I shot first and killed him, Lord, he didn't even draw

And he made me trade the gallows for the Mexicali Blues, yeh

Is there anything a man don't stand to lose

When he lets a woman hold him in her hands?

He just might find himself out there on horseback in the dark

Just ridin' and runnin' across those desert sands

  • Can you summarize this story using your own words?

  • What does the city of “Mexicali” represent?

  • Can we somehow link it to “All the pretty horses”? Why yes/no? Explain

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