The Last Cowgirl by Jana Richman
Reviewed by Barbara K. Richardson
The Last Cowgirl is a page-turner of a different sort. Or rather for a different audience. If you love the land, puzzle over our abuse of it, and wonder why you continue to live in (or near) Utah–the “Land of Cognitive Dissonance”–take a ride with Jana Richman. It’s a rough-and-tumble journey over desert terrain just west of the Salt Lake Valley but unknown to many. If you listen closely, you’ll hear you can’t deny the land.
Young Dickie Sinfield sets her heart against life in the rural backwater of Clayton, Utah. Her father George wants nothing more than to live a cowboy’s life, so he packs up his family of five and moves them onto a ramshackle ranch when Dickie is just eight years old. Due to a string of ranch-related accidents, Dickie sees herself as a fragile outsider in her father’s rugged life. Dickie won’t go native. But no one in her beleaguered family is better suited to the stark beauty of the Onaqui Valley—sixty miles west of Salt Lake City—than Dickie, and it’s her own self-betrayal that makes The Last Cowgirl sing.
Told in alternating present tense and flashbacks, this story works backward into your heart like cheatgrass in an unsuspecting sock. Dickie Sinfield is middle-aged, cranky, and moderately successful as a journalist in Salt Lake City when she gets news that her big brother Heber’s life was snuffed out in a nerve gas explosion at Dugway Proving Grounds. This takes a very reluctant Dickie back home.
In Clayton, we meet Bev, the strongest, wisest rancher in the valley; George, Dickie’s tough angry father; Holly, the best friend you wish you’d never had; and Stumpy, a red-headed cowboy raised by his grandpa and chock-full of the range.
It is one of the mysteries of good novels, how they won’t let you go. Won’t let you leave them sitting alone for more than a few hours, covers closed. Yes, there are times when the smart-assed closed-off Dickie makes you want to shake her, but The Last Cowgirl isn’t only her tale; Richman writes men beautifully. Richman does not flinch from exposing family conflict. She knows the secrets of a land so spare the military slaps No Trespassing signs around hundreds of thousands of acres. There are caves in the Onaqui Mountains, there are secret springs, there are wild horse herds handsome with muck and bruises.
It is one of the mysteries of human nature, that we can find our home in a place, in people, and be the last one to recognize it. Dickie Sinfield is The Last Cowgirl. Drive out past the Oquirhh Mountains to the Onaquis. Sit quietly awhile. Let the silence inform you. Then read Richman’s novel for the backstory. It’s a Utah tale very likely to grab your heart.
South Onaqui Loop: photos and hiking information click here.
BLM Onaqui Herd Management page: photos and viewing information click here.
Dugway Proving Grounds Survivors: info and news articles about chemical, biological and radioactive open air testing click here.
Barbara K. Richardson writes novels, does freelance editing, and designs landscapes in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her new book, Guest House, is long-haul novel set in Salt Lake City,Utah; Portland, Oregon; and Atomic City, Idaho. See her website at www.barbarakrichardson.com.