Review by Hayden Thorne
FROM THE AUTHOR’S BOOK PAGE:
Escaping into the fantasy of his books when he’s not working in the general store, Ethan Keller has lived a sheltered life in his mother’s boarding house. One day, an enigmatic cowboy passing through the small Texas town takes an immediate liking to the shy seventeen-year-old. Ethan is intrigued by the attention, and the cowboy eventually charms him into signing on to a 900-mile cattle drive. Ethan soon finds that his feelings for this cowboy run deeper than just friendship. He never knew that this kind of love even existed; and now for the two of them to make a life together in the untamed west, they must face nearly insurmountable odds if they are to survive.
Mark Probst’s debut novel was a much-welcome read for me and my perpetual search for gay historical fiction that I can recommend to adolescent readers – more specifically, gay historical fiction written by contemporary authors. The setting, the golden age of the Old West (the year is 1878), provides us with a fantastic backdrop for all sorts of adventures and a more sobering context where same-sex love is concerned.
There’s probably the inevitable comparisons to “Brokeback Mountain,” but Probst’s novel is a completely different animal. Yes, there are gay cowboys, magnificent mountain ranges and adventures in cattle driving, and pup tents. Wink, nudge. However, Probst chooses to tell his story along more romanticized lines, which works pretty well with the main character’s coming-of-age process. For the most part, we see things unfold through Ethan’s eyes – the eyes of a shy, seventeen-year-old bookworm whose world has never gone past his mother’s boarding house, the general store, and an occasional foray into town, whenever he’s asked to keep his older brother in line. Enter Travis Cain, and those boundaries are slowly, unavoidably challenged. When Ethan goes off to a 900-mile cattle drive, his world reshapes itself as both extreme beauty and extreme hardship force him to grow up, to begin questioning and reevaluating old beliefs. Through all these, however, he’s still a kid, and his age and sheltered upbringing edge his ongoing development with a bit of naivete.
It’s the combination of Ethan’s initiation into adulthood and the fascinating scenes – urban, rural, and wild Nature – that makes this novel a good book to recommend to gay teens. Love, adventure, history – with two charming, young gay men as the heroes? It’s a wonderful “distraction” from contemporary themes involving high school – and most certainly one I hope to see more of. Yes, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all glossed over and are very tame compared to sex scenes in a couple of gay young adult novels I’ve recently read.
The strength of Probst’s writing, in addition to Ethan’s characterization, lies in the setting and how lovingly detailed it is. There’s a difference, yes, in the way the Colorado mountain ranges are described compared to any of the dusty towns Ethan and his companions travel to. For the former, there’s quite a bit of care in making the forests and the deserts as organic and real to us as possible. For the latter, things are described in more general terms, but we’re all so familiar with the Old West that it really doesn’t matter. We can still see, without being given so many details, what a saloon looks like because we’ve been there before. Besides, it’s the freedom offered by Nature, not the crazy bustle of those old towns, that’s the defining key to Ethan and Travis’s romance.
I do have a minor quibble regarding the novel’s POV. We begin with a very strong limited third person with Ethan, but it shifts, especially toward the end, when we’re suddenly in Travis’s or Willie’s (Ethan’s older brother) head. The shift was unexpected, given the mostly solid POV from Ethan up until the third section of the novel, but I suppose given the circumstances of those last few chapters, there’s only so much we can see from Ethan’s perspective. Some of the discussions between Ethan and Miss Peet regarding the novels Ethan reads feel a bit stiff – as though we’re being lectured by the characters – but those are few.
The minor characters are drawn well enough without taking over a scene (though I must admit that I absolutely adore Willie). There are enough of them to make Ethan’s world a realistically complex one, and only a few are allowed varying degrees of development, which helps keep the story’s pace going.
This is an enjoyable debut novel overall. Romanticized, perhaps, but it’s still a good escape and, for younger gay readers, a much-needed addition to a genre in which they’ve long been underrepresented.