One of the standard conflicts in the West and plots used for westerns is the "rancher/cowboy vs homesteader/farmer". Remember the story line of Shane? However, this SPUR Award winning novel uniquely focuses on what were the effects on the kids or children of the opposing parents and adults. Appropriately, the setting is the cattle boomtown of Abilene, Kansas in 1871.
And as with Shane, Huck, The Shootist, True Grit, and Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, the story's adolescent, first person viewpoint is deceptively simple but with grownup complexities--hence, sixteen-year-old Will Merritt memorable coming-of-age experience. As expected of most nineteenth century townie boys who have read "dime" novels, Will and his friends are, of course, on the side of the free wheeling cowboys. That also includes a fascination for the town marshal, Wild Bill Hickok. Knowledgeable westerners will turn the pages in anticipation of the inevitable famous and tragic Hickok/Coe shootout.
However, as Will relishes the exciting and exotic "Texastown" or "red light" district with his pals, his "searching for the big rock candy mountain" businessman father recognizes the future is not with the short lived trail drive but just might lie with the sodbusters if they can conquer the brutal land and weather of the Plains.
When was the last time you read a Western plot with a role for horticulture or more specifically Winter Wheat (Triticum Aestivum) ? No doubt to some of your FFA readers, this crop as the survival solution for Kansas farmers is not a revelation. Fine for the dirt farmers but what about the predicament it creates for Will? How can he avoid being shunned by his cowboy loving friends while remaining loyal to his father and mother? Unfortunately, to further complicate Will's dilemma, his Juliet is Anna, the beguiling daughter of the enemy sodbuster camp.
Because of the variety and diversity of the characters from Will's flawed yet best friend, Jasper and courageous Wild Bill Hickok to the heroic, principled young cowboy, Bill Williams, the reader quickly realizes this is much more than a big traditional western. Evidently, Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite authors were the western writers, Zane Grey and Thomas Savage. If Larry Bjornson continues to write westerns such as this and if Abilene's most famous son were alive today, he might have a third favorite author. Highly recommended. 378 pages.
Recommended by: Robert L. Hicks, retired H.S. librarian, Arkansas City, Kansas USA