I recently reviewed two memoirs, mentioning that they read like novels. Now we have found a novel that felt like a memoir. In The Last Cowgirl: A Novel, Jana Richman has brought her main character, Dickie Sinfield to life through a combination of contemporary narrative and flashbacks to childhood memories. The Last Cowgirl is a book about a woman coming to terms with her childhood on a cattle ranch, and her life in the 30 years since she left it.
When she was 7 years old, Dickie’s father George moved the family from a suburb of Salt Lake City to a ranch in the rural town of Clayton, complete with cows and horses. Dickie tells us at the beginning of the novel:
Since then – nearly forty-six years ago – I’ve blamed anything that needed blaming on what Annie refers to it as Dad’s “Gil Favor complex.”
Dickie’s older brother Heber thrived, loving the change, while older sister Annie and mother Ruth ignored the move, continuing to be fashionable and ladylike. Dickie was stuck in the middle, and ended up torn between the two extremes. While she would say that she hated life in Clayton, she loved riding in the wilderness with her new friend Stumpy and helping their neighbor, Bev, with her garden and ranch. Dickie was a sensitive child who had thrived on orderliness of the green grass, sidewalks, and curbs, and felt out of her element in the relative wilderness of Clayton. Dickie’s character comes across well in this quote about her unsettled feelings during childhood:
It was the last three words that got to me. The three words I’d been hearing my entire life. Dropped off a horse onto her head. She’ll be fine. Dragged by a steer. She’ll be fine. Lost in the mountains. She’ll be fine. Branded. She’ll be fine. Shot at. She’ll be fine. At what point, I wondered, do the actions of grown-ups add up to a child who actually won’t be fine?
Dickie leaves Clayton right after graduation with a college scholarship for a journalism program, then leads a very orderly life in Salt Lake City as a prominent writer for a Mormon newspaper. She has a house, a yard with a garden, a couple friends, and a neighbor who she has been casually dating for over 10 years. Dickie’s orderly life is reminiscent of her suburban life prior to the move to Clayton. She has also tried to leave behind any emotional messiness; we are left only with hints about a past relationship. Dickie’s liberal beliefs set her apart from most of the people at work and help her keep her distance from others, making her life very compartmentalized. The Last Cowgirl challenges its narrator to let go of her control, and brings the reader along for the wonderful ride, galloping beside her.
Using Dickie’s voice to tell the story, Richman makes The Last Cowgirl very personal. As we read her memories from childhood, we build a strong connection with her. Dickie’s friends, family, and neighbors become like friends to us as we see them from her childhood through her adulthood. Richman writes very detailed descriptions, and while I’ve never been to Utah, I can now picture the landscape around the ranch in great detail; Richman has painted vivid images that have stayed in my mind long after I closed the book. My mind’s eye is stuck on a hidden canyon with wild horses…
I’m glad I took The Last Cowgirl off my shelf on a day when my daughters weren’t home, because nothing could make me put it down! As it was, I ignored my husband, dogs, and computer while I was caught in the world Richman spun around Dickie Sinfield. The Last Cowgirl had me laughing, crying, and reading quotes out loud, completely enraptured by the story. Make sure you’ve got some free time when you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down.
I strongly recommend reading The Last Cowgirl, not only so you can read about Dickie’s unique childhood escapades, but also to read her journey from keeping everyone at arm’s length to trying to achieve happiness. As you follow your own trail, spend a few hours reading The Last Cowgirl to help bring you some smiles along the way.
This book was received from the publisher for review