“It’s a rough life on the family farm,” my dad used to always say to my brothers and me whenever we complained about chores (even though we didn’t live on a farm). In Utah writer Jana Richman’s debut novel, The Last Cowgirl, it’s a rough life on the family ranch for the narrator, Dickie Sinfield, who is forced against her will to become a cowgirl at age eight, when her father moves the family from the fictional Ganoa, “two hundred miles southwest of Blacksmith Fork Canyon in Utah’s west desert” to an isolated ranch in Clayton, “twenty miles beyond the reach of Ganoa’s paved streets and sidewalks.” This move and its repercussions will have a lifelong impact on Dickie, and the book is told alternately through vivid childhood flashbacks and the present perspective of the now 52-year-old Dickie, who states in the opening, “My brother, Heber, is dead. Poisoned by nerve gas.”
Heber had taken to the ranch life readily, but when he couldn’t make a living from ranching alone, he found a job in Dugway Proving Grounds, a real U.S. Army facility (which employs many of the ranchers and townspeople in the area) and ultimately died there under mysterious circumstances.
Dickie and her brother were always miles apart politically. Heber was proud to work for the army, while Dickie made her career as an investigative journalist for The Beehive Banner, a Mormon Church-owned newspaper that nevertheless allowed her to publish provocative articles. Her editor describes them as a couple of “so-called left-wing alarmists.” As Richman writes in Dickie’s rabble-rousing voice, “During World War II, the federal government discovered the west desert to be an ideal place to set off bombs, test nerve gas, and generally play around with chemical concoctions designed to annihilate large subsections of the human species.”
Because of her strained relationship with her father and some bad childhood memories, Dickie is hesitant to return to Clayton after her brother’s death, and the events that traumatized her as a child are gradually revealed. Richman captures the awkwardness and drama of childhood and adolescence so accurately, with such vivid, sensory detail, that these chapters could have made a fine young adult novel (and I mean that as a compliment). The first time Dickie is made to ride a horse, she’s dragged and falls. She subsequently becomes lost in the desert for half a day, and decides she isn’t cut out to be a cowgirl.
But while Dickie’s glamorous older sister Annie is allowed to shirk ranch duties, Dickie’s father and several of the ranchers in the area decide that she rides well, and so force her to participate in chores, roundups, and branding sessions even though she professes to hate all of it. Dickie is often sent out riding with the neighbor boy, Stubby, who was raised by his grandfather and born to the cowboy life. She forms a strong friendship with Stubby, though choices they make in their teenage years eventually strain it.
This is the underlying plotline of the childhood sections, but some of the book’s best parts are the little detours and details Richman provides along the way, such as a great scene at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, in which Dickie’s dad shows off in the stands, yammering on about the qualifications and prospects of every cowboy so that those around him will think him knowledgeable. Anyone who’s ever sat next to a loudmouth in the stands will appreciate this scene both for its humor and its psychological accuracy—a deeply embarrassed daughter and a father who deals with his insecurity by showing off.
I also enjoyed Richman’s descriptions of life in Mormon small town society, told in the often humorous voice that won readers over in her 2005 nonfiction book, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail. Dickie describes her dad as a “jack-Mormon,” “the beer-drinking, swearing Mormons who didn’t like handling 10 percent of their hard-earned cash over to the church but still hoped to reap the benefits of eternal salvation by sending their children to Sunday service.” Dickie’s mom on the other hand, is a believer, and a dolled-up one at that: “There were two distinct kinds of Mormon women in Ganoa County—those who dropped babies like chickens laying eggs and didn’t see any reason to fix up in between, and those who used the Relief Society, the women’s branch of the church, to exchange the fashion magazines around which they patterned their clothing, hair and living rooms.” Dickie’s mom falls into the latter category of women, and the tension between what appeals to her and what appeals to her husband ultimately becomes a major plot thread.
The adult sections of The Last Cowgirl don’t go down quite as easily as the childhood ones. Richman handles the political aspects of her tale as well as possible, showing precisely why some of her characters are livid at the U.S. government through shocking scenes that reveal their personal stakes, rather then having the characters deliver tirades. But in the childhood chapters, Dickie is always engaged in some activity, whereas in the adult sections, at times the action becomes bogged down in dialogue that repeats the same messages over and over again no matter who is doing the talking (i.e., Dickie doesn’t belong in Salt Lake City, she belongs at the ranch, with the man she loves, and Dickie’s consistent response to this is to dig in her heels.) In the end, other characters narrow Dickie’s options so that she’s left with only one viable path, when it might have made for a stronger conclusion to have her finally make her own choice rather than to be shoved into one.
Despite these few flaws, The Last Cowgirl is an engaging and good-humored read that shows how profoundly a person can be shaped by the landscape in which they grow up, whether they want to be or not.
Jana Richman will read from The Last Cowgirl in Salt Lake City at the King’s English Bookshop on January 8 (7 p.m.) and Sam Weller’s books on January 31. She’ll appear at the Barnes & Noble in Murray, Utah on February 7.