What do you get when you pair a solitary, fixed-in-her-ways, unapologetically uncommunicative woman with a stray donkey? You get Suzanne and Gertrude, a slender and charming novel by Jeb Loy Nichols. It’s the kind of book that you start over the minute you finish it.
Suzanne, Nichol’s eponymous human protagonist, lives alone on her hilltop farm quite comfortably, thank you very much. She runs the town’s fabric shop, a job that relies, “on those qualities at which she least excelled…She had no small talk…she was not interested in other peoepls’ distractions…she was simply not what the world expected her to be.” Then one frigid February morning, a donkey that wasn’t there the night before suddenly is. Suzanne names her Gertrude.
Suzanne’s and Gertrude’s companionship advances slowly, guardedly — a nuzzle from Gertrude here, a gentle pull from Suzanne there. There are no epic changes in either woman nor donkey. And yet there are. Or perhaps the biggest change is in the reader. Early in the book, Suzanne acknowledges that she is out of synch with the world. As I turned the novel’s last page I realized the truth was actally the opposite: the world is out of synch with Suzanne.
I began Suzanne and Gertrude thinking that Gertrude was a four-legged beast of burden to Suzanne’s two — relatively silent except a bray here and there; living the same day over and over; beings of limited needs. I realized that in Gertrude, Suzanne found what too many humans never do; a companion completely in synch with her. A companion who accepts her exactly as she is.