First off, I’m a Susan Juby fan. Her first two books, Alice, I Think and Miss Smithers, are side-splittingly funny (and I’m not much of a laugh-out-loud reader). They’re the kind of books that I will use to gauge a teenage girl’s coolness. If a girl finds Susan Juby’s writing humorous, then I can be pretty sure she’s got her fair share of cleverness.
Second, I will tell you that I was never a girly horse fanatic – and I grew up on a farm with horses. I didn’t read horsey books. I didn’t ride horses, and whenever I walked across our property to get to the barn, I would carry a carrot or a handful of apple peelings as a protective measure. When one of the horses would wander up to say hi, my heart would start thumping for no real reason and I would say a shaky “good girl,” drop my carrot and run. Pathetic really, given that these horses were old retired thoroughbreds – about as intimidating as sleepy cows. I guess it was their size and their noisy, puffy breath that freaked me out. My sister rode though. She did both jumping and dressage. Recently I’ve wondered if I might like to give riding a try – but I think it’s probably the romantic Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet Sense and Sensibility side of me talking.
I was a bit surprised to learn that Juby’s newest book is about a cowboy. Alex Ford is a talented, natural horseman. He has been riding since he was a kid and he loves it more than anything. He wants desperately to trade in his cowboy schtick for the chance to learn the art of dressage. His family life is somewhat messed up. His dad has lived in an RV in the front drive ever since Alex’s mom moved out. He has little twin sisters who are crazy about martial arts and are totally off the wall. His aunt Grace, a hairdresser, lives with them too, and is not what you would call a stabilizing influence. Alex is quite closed off, focused and shy. He knows what matters to him and he’s a good kid. Alongside Alex is Cleo O’Shea, a student at a prestigious equestrian school on the island, who becomes a part of Alex’s life and has some secrets of her own. The story is told from both of their perspectives, in an interesting combination of first person (for Cleo) and third person point of view (for Alex).
I liked the premise that Alex Ford is a cowboy who secretly wants to learn dressage, and I thought that this alone created plenty of tension. Then when it became clear that Alex is also a closeted cowboy I thought – please don’t do that. We don’t need a teenage Brokeback Mountain. It just seemed a tad predictable – like a prepackaged, instant conflict. I thought it would be interesting enough to have a kid struggling to go after a dream that no one else can understand, without having him also trying to come to terms with his sexuality. But it aint my book.
In spite of this, I think Juby managed to balance the story so that enough emphasis was placed on both aspects of Alex’s struggle. Coming into his own as a rider is part of how he finds a way to open up about his identity. This doesn’t seem forced, as I feared it might. I enjoyed the unlikely friendship that develops between Cleo and Alex. Juby’s best strength as a writer is characterization. Her characters feel very round, complicated and natural. She’s great at voice. I often find weaker writers can’t create consistently strong dialogue. Juby’s dialogue is almost always pitch perfect. I imagine that there will be plenty of girls who find lots to love about this book – the horses, the private school backdrop, the romance / heartbreak.
So read it, whether you’re a horse girl or not. It might make you think those big, puffy breathers aren’t so freaky after all. Oh – and it’s funny too. There are some good, outloud chuckles to be had in this one.
Another Kind of Cowboy is published by Harper Collins Canada. There’s a book trailer (bland in my opinion… so look at it after you’ve read the book): Another Kind of Cowboy trailer.