by Suzanne Morgan Williams
First sentence: “Folks in Salt Lick say I couldn’t shake bull riding if I tried.”
Review copy provided by the publisher.
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Cam doesn’t want any part of his family’s obsession with bull riding. As far as he’s concerned, that’s his Grandpa Roy’s, Dad’s and older brother Ben’s territory. Even if he is in northern Nevada, in a piddly little town just outside of Winnemucca, and lives on a cattle ranch, he’s a skateboarder, not a bull rider.
Then, Ben joins the Marines and gets shipped to Iraq, and a year later comes home seriously injured. And (of course), Cam’s life drastically changes. Not only does he have more chores to do around the ranch, but his grades tank because of the stress, and inevitably, he finds that there is less time to board. And that it’s less important to him. Especially once he visits the bull ring again, and gets goaded into riding. He finds that he’s actually good at it, and when Ben seems to be stuck in a permanent funk, Cam makes a deal: if he can ride the biggest, meanest bull around — Ugly’s his name — then Ben has to try harder at getting better.
The question is: how’s Cam going to do that?
It’s an interesting tale, that of Cam and his adapting to the changes in his life. It’s also almost more a story of the changes a soldier’s injury brings to both his and his family’s life. Williams is brilliant at showing how everyone is affected by it, from Cam and Ben to their parents and grandparents, to the community as a whole. There’s a lot of teenage angst — Cam’s 14, which (IMHO) puts this at the upper end of middle grade books — a lot of lying, and a lot of sneaking around. Cam’s mother bans him from bull riding — it’s a dangerous, if exciting, sport — because she can’t handle the idea of two sons being seriously injured. So, Cam resorts to sneaking around behind her back, which is easier than would be expected, since she’s so preoccupied with Ben and his recovery.
Cam’s a sympathetic character, though, and Williams makes his pain and discomfort and unease palpable. As a reader, you find yourself rooting for everyone: for Cam to make the ride, for Ben to get better, for everyone to get past the pain. It sounds like it would be a hopeless book, a depressing book, but Williams infuses it with a spirit of hope, of promise, that even though the end is not tidy, everything feels like it’s going to work out.
And that’s a good thing.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)