Around here we all love Kari Lynn Dell’s humor column in which she explores how a competent ranch wife with good intentions can do her best and still get bopped on the nose and a hole ripped in the seat of her last good jeans. Happens to the best of us. In the tradition of wry country humor, hardship becomes philosophy, a warm circle that includes us all.
When Kirkus reviews (which libraries rely on to guide their purchases) says Kari is a “notable” writer, I don’t know quite what they mean except that you should note her name and buy her books. It’s lively vernacular writing, neither stuck-up nor rude.
Recently Kari expanded to writing romance novels, the first one located on her home ground just south of the Canadian border on the east slope of the Rockies, which is also the homelands of the Blackfeet. Her expertise aside from ranch life is rodeo competition at the champion level. (2013 Canadian Senior Pro Rodeo Association Breakaway Roping Champion). After three successful books about the Montana scene put her in the orbit of the organizations of romance writers who support each other with advice and contacts, she has started a new trilogy about Texas ranches. Of course, rodeo is international. (Ask a Brazillian bull rider! See the 8-29-15 prairiemary post entitled “Fearless”.)
“Reckless in Texas” is a modern romance. Aside from being ambitious as any man, “Violet” with the sweet old-fashioned name (she almost but not quite qualifies to be called “violent”) is no church lady, though she tries not to disappoint her parents, but has not been able to find that volcanic, earth-shaking sexual response that means to her “love.” Her small son is the product of a drunken one-night stand — very embarrassing, but understandable. It leaves her a bit stranded between the superstar glamour boys and the dependable but rather boring father of her child. He is not excluded from the family and hopes to marry Violet.
This story is deeper than it seems at first. Besides marrying the romance trope of “falling madly in love” to the traditional saga of creating something that can be passed down through generations, this tale has a two-step moral wallop. First step, never do anything that will hurt people you care about. Second step, if you care about certain people, pull them into your family no matter whether they are inconvenient, lost, disabled, or angry.
There are other “notable” elements. Sex is always guarded by Trojans. There is no scoffing at wealth nor any knee-jerk criticism of long hair. When the people in the story get into bad trouble, their family and friends rally to pull them out, along with a good scolding and savory food.
Though the story is told through Violet’s dilemmas, there is a serious concern here that is lived out on the ranches near Dell’s home. If you can find Del Bonita port of entry on a map, that's not far away. It’s livestock country because the growing season is too short for grain crops. Men who work with massive animals can get used to employing muscle and force to get their way, investing in power and control that they might also turn on the humans around them. They can build an empire but only leave it to the cripples they have created. Often they hamstring themselves with addiction and gambling.
If a man is lucky and smart enough to invest in a family woman, their children, and a strategy of understanding, then he is likely to participate in an ecology of land, animals and family that will support a bright future. So the underlying conflict in this “Texas” tale is one so powerful and universal that it gets acted out on the national level. Even internationally. Do we take what we want from others or do we build a resilient society that is based on love? (Oh, I blush at the cliché even though this is a romance novel review!)
Back in ancient times (the Sixties) I taught school with Kari’s father, Bill Icenoggle. But I didn’t get a taste of rodeo culture until Bob Scriver was creating his series of portraits of people, animals and events. He always worked with checklist series, so he portrayed one each of the events, including the rodeo clowns (which were really clown-costumed then, though they have since discarded that just in time to escape the “evil clown” notion) and the pickup “men”, whose gender-assignment is successfully challenged in this story, since Violet is effective in that role.
I’m here to report that rodeo folks are on the whole the most dependable, generous, honorable people you’ll ever meet, because their lives depend on those characteristics. The powerful message of Dell’s moral code is that it functions. It works. It can’t hold off disaster and tragedy entirely, but it’s better at helping people survive than any other system. She should know: she wears the pink ribbon of the breast cancer survivor.
By focusing this romantic story, about a woman who wants love to be “more” and a man who can barely recognize the phenomenon of being in love, on two kinds of roles based on saving people — pickup riders and bull distractors — and openly noting (oh, write this down) that they have standards and personalities in common because the job of both is saving people, she is offering a new understanding of rodeo, a frontier occupational skill that has been exploded into an “extreme competition.” The world needs daring and explosive glamour like extraordinary bull-riders presented with search lights, flames and fireworks. But it also needs the steady skills of ropers, riders, and rescuers to make it work.
When we began to go “backstage” at rodeos, I was surprised when visiting the cowboys out where their rigs were parked. They were young family men with little kids tumbling on their waiting saddles and pretty wives giving them backrubs and checking their stitches. My original idea of rodeo was the 1952 movie “The Lusty Men” where my thirteen-year-old self was blown away by the daring of Robert Mitchum going right into a bathroom to hand a towel to Susan Hayward in the shower. I was uncertain about the propriety of being naked in a room alone with myself. Mitchum WAS the bull and Hayward intended to ride him. Eeeks.
Dionysian rule-breakers were pretty appealing in the gray, controlled Fifties. Over the years we’ve become a little more interested in human relationships under challenge. There are lists on the Internet and I’ve missed some, but if they don’t appear on the Netflix list, I can’t watch them. http://rodeo.about.com/od/moviesandtelevision/tp/3-Incredible-Rodeo-Movies.htm
I can’t remember the name of another family rodeo story that actually lifts up the bull as a hero. Was it "The Longest Ride"? He’s not “Dirt-Eater,” but also a money maker. In the end we see him back on the prairie in his natural state. That’s the mental image I like to keep. But the rest of the story, like "Reckless in Texas", includes family support and a smart business plan. Kari Lynn Dell has got them. Hard to tell how far she will go, but she can ride a writing future hard. Next is "Tangled Up in Texas."