Lifting the Sky kicks off our list with two cowgirls. Blue is a 12-year-old girl with a wandering ranch-hand mom and an ability to see "lights" around people and animals, but she doesn't think of herself as a rancher.
"As for me, I was no cowgirl like my mom. I was okay on a horse and pretty good at helping to round up the cattle or to check on the cows and calves, and I could even fix fences if they didn't need to be stretched. But there were some things, like branding, that I absolutely, totally hated. I shied away when it came time for weaning the calves and sending them away from their mamas. Mam always said I was overly sensitive and should just get over it. Easy for her to say. Sometimes I figured being overly sensitive was the worst possible trait one could have. Especially if you lived on a ranch."
It soon becomes clear that her kind of sensitivity is a valuable skill at Far Canyon Ranch. Blue nurses two bum calves back to health, and takes in a lame antelope, which leads her to some surprising discoveries. Author Mackie D'Arge lives on a ranch on the Wind River Reservation, and she uses her first-hand knowledge to create realistic scenes of ranch life and to depict the austerity and natural beauty of Western Wyoming.
In Bull Rider, Cam faces the test of his young manhood when his older brother Ben returns from Iraq seriously injured. Before all this happened, he would rather hang out in town (Salt Lick, Nevada) and perfect his skateboarding skills than ride a bull. Ben was the bull rider in the family, after all. Cam takes his first ride as a dare, with his brother watching. It doesn't go so well (he blacks out), but it does give him the itch to ride:
"I sat on the fence and tried to act cool, like blacking out on the back of a steer happened to me every day. Meanwhile, Darrell got settled for his ride. He picked the big black Brahma. Andrew pulled the gate clear back and man, that bull shot out. He bucked high and landed four-footed, turned right, and then threw his head back, then ducked it to the left. Darrell went flying off to the side. He hit, bounced to his feet, hopping one, two, three, four. He sprang up the fence like a jack rabbit and landed next to me.
'So, you gonna be a bull rider like your brother?'"
Author Suzanne Morgan Williams has created a compelling story of two brothers and of rural life. It's actually one of the first stories for young readers that I've read about the effects of having a family member serve in Iraq. (And I love the bull riding scenes... you have to love a 1,600-lb bull named Ugly.)
Heart of a Shepherd is another story of a family member who's gone off to war. Brother, "a full-time sixth grader," takes on a lot of the family ranching responsibilities with Grandpa when his dad goes to Iraq. (His four older brothers are away at school, preparing for military careers.) He's a sensitive kid.
"Probably Frank will just tell me something depressing like Half of all the bum lambs die in their first week, and a bunch more don't make it past a month. Just don't get too attached. I know he's right. Nobody fusses about death except me. They always shrug and say "That's life," in exactly the same tone of voice that they say "That's baseball" when I strike out.
The things is, I hate striking out and I hate death. I hate it every time. Nobody teases me when I get all sad, but I see them shake their heads at each other like they're wondering, How am I ever going to be a real rancher? And what else am I going to be? Ranching and soldiering is what men do around here."
In her debut novel, Rosanne Parry has captured the complexities of modern ranch life. She beautifully portrays the values of sensitivity, humility, and hard work that Brother needs to learn to take his proper place on the ranch and in the family.
The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones is very different from the other books in this post, but I love it so much I couldn't leave it out. This is an old-west-style adventure tale of Prometheus Jones, an African American wrangler who wins a half-blind horse (which he names "Good Eye") and hooks up with a cattle drive bound for Deadwood. Along the way he makes a few friends:
"I hand the ropes of the steers to the young Indian, but he don't take the braided hemp. He stares at me, then wipes his finger along my cheek and looks to see if I'm painted same as him, only black.
I rub the white paint on his face, and it comes off a faint powder on my fingers.
Ole Woman watches us. "That white paint is good luck to Pawnee scouts," he says. "Don't mess with that."
I smile and nod. The Indian takes the rope and smiles back at me like I'm some traveling-show curiosity."
Author Helen Hemphill was inspired by the autobiography of Nat Love (a real-life African American cowboy) and the late-19th-century pulp westerns of Edward Wheeler. A smart, funny, action-packed book.
Thanks for indulging my love of all things cowboy. I'll close with wise words from real-life cowboy/Vaudevillian Will Rogers:
"Never kick a cow chip on a hot day."--Heidi