We all know that romance novels are about pairing people with eventual success. (Is there a sub-genre where they end up in disaster? Suicide, single mothers, military widows, marrying a mad person?)
TOUGHER IN TEXAS begins thus: “All of Cole’s problems would be solved if he just found a wife.” He’s big (6’6”), so big that he’s not used to people arguing with him and his standards are so high that the precipitating incident for the whole plot is him firing a guy for using a hotshot on “Carrot Top,” a valuable bucking bull who already knows his business.
So now he’s short a pickup man, the vital person who gets the cowboy off the bucking animal when he’s already ridden to the 9 second buzzer. It can be risky, even deadly. No job for a girl. But Shawnee Pickett will argue with any dumb rules, even the ones about having sex with cowboys. As the story begins, she’s literally embedded with a Brazilian bull rider.
But her cell buzzes and there she is, in bed with her lover but talking to her mom. So how grownup is she, really? This story hinges on the possibility of her maturing — Cole, as well, really, but his big challenge comes at the end of the book. I can’t tell you what it is without being a spoiler.
The hinge is the ancient challenge of wanting to be loved, enfolded, protected, and yet wanting to be free, in charge of one’s own life and decisions — in spite of life always interfering in ways that end some choices forever. Cole can absolutely engulf a woman, but Shawnee knows herself. When he wants to “spoon” with her in front of him, she asks to move to his back, saying that she gets claustrophobia when held against a big hairy chest. He’s adaptable, doesn’t object. But doesn’t ask why.
So she becomes Cole’s new pickup man and the Brazilian — we just forget about him. Maybe he goes back to Brazil. Cole also has a rival partner: Katie, the emotional stock dog who is obedient but often has a bad attitude. All characters, including horses in particular, are part of the big rodeo family, partly genetic and partly created by challenges and loyalties over the years of adventure and risk.
This is a liberal family that includes people of all “races” without fussing about it or making them into a plot point. But also these people struggle with psych issues. I know Kari Lynn Dell, who lives in a contiguous county to where I live on the Montana high prairie, might not have a lot of knowledge about street drug addictions, but she knows autism because her son is on the autism spectrum at the high end, just like Cole, and capable of fine performance when being careful to manage misfires of thought and emotion. In fact, this author is not afraid to include migraine, cancer, and horses that go nuts. So you can guess she’s pretty capable of telling a tough story.
Dell is a roper who gets into the high money, as well as being a college-educated sports medicine healer. But her real heroism, she might say, is as a ranch wife — never a day without a challenge. In addition to romance novels, she writes a weekly humor column that runs in rural weekly newspapers. It's the first part we read — well, maybe after the sheriff’s report. Her wry-and-dry amusement slips in and out of this match-making tale that exasperates everyone, but no one more than the cow dog.
Rodeo, writing, and art are the three “magic” ways to keep a ranch going in an erratic economy complicated by erratic weather. If Kari begins to paint, we’ll know that the days on the Hi-Line have somehow been made longer by global warming. (She does pack a sharp-eyed camera.) Luckily, there is an audience out there that is willing to read about how tough this life can be.
All the small matters of equipment, strategy, and personality dynamics of rodeos are described here backstage — the stuff you can’t just see sitting in the bleachers. Thus one of the major reasons for learning about someone else’s world is fulfilled until you feel as though you’d smelled the manure, heard the grunts and thumps of bulls pounding the ground as they writhe in the air, felt a fine horse between your knees.
Speaking of “between knees” Kari writes well about making love in the way that people can when they’re not afraid of bodies of men nor beasts. Who puts what where is handled nicely, no offence to either party. But nevertheless it’s the emotions that are the problem. Not just because people are gender-assigned but because their “object relations” were screwed up and they are “anxious attachers.” That is, always worrying about being dumped while at the same time wondering whether they ought to make a run for it.
Indeed, rodeos has enough of a carnie element to attract people who over-estimate themselves and can’t seem to quite find a niche they can fit. The runaway father, the weak-willed kid, the girl-ahead-of-her-age, and — well, is Shawnee too defiant to be safe, let alone dependable? When does a person deserve a second chance? How much can other people compensate or even save you?
My experience with rodeo is out-of-date and second-hand, being the wife of Bob Scriver when he was doing the portrait of Bill Linderman, which led to a series of rodeo pieces. That was the Sixties and Linderman was part of the upgrading of the sport from deadbeats and chancers to the modern clean-cut sportsmen competitors of today. But it was also a sweet spot a little before the glitz and glamour promotions of today’s extreme versions, high-money that brought in the Brazilians.
Maybe Ben Johnson — rancher, stuntman, world champion rodeo competitor, Academy award winning actor — was a good exemplar of the kind of authentic person a rodeo competitor can be — not the kind of guy who can’t ride a horse that isn’t bucking and owns his own airplane so he can do the rodeo circuit double-time. One of my claims to fame is that when I was standing around at the National Rodeo Finals, Johnson was just finishing the arena clean up and saw me ogling him. He came over and shook my hand. “Hello,” he said mildly. “I’m Ben Johnson.” It was better than any big old shiny belt buckle. This book is pretty good, too.