Review: Calico by Dorien Grey

“Calico” is something of a breakthrough novel in that it spans a bridge which is only now opening for two-way traffic. The author describes “Calico” as a “western/romance/adventure/mystery with a twist”…the twist being that its cowboy hero/protagonist just happens to be gay.

Calico Ramsey finds himself with the responsibility of seeing that two 17 year old orphaned twins from Chicago, Josh and Sarah Howard, get safely from the rail line’s end to their aunt in Colorado. But things have begun to go terribly wrong even before the twins arrive, and it doesn?t take long for Calico to realize someone does not want him to reach his destination (though how anyone even knows the trio’s destination is a mystery to Calico).

There is enough action, adventure, and mystery to satisfy both diehard western fans, and even those who don’t normally care for the genre. The gently developing romance is non-threatening to those who have lived their lives on the “mainland” side of the bridge, but offers a unique insight into the 10 percent of the population living at the other end of the bridge.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When Calico Ramsey’s uncle Dan is gunned down by a hired killer, Calico inherits not only Dan’s ranch, but also a responsibility to Dan’s newly orphaned nephew and niece. He promises to see them safely into the custody of their Aunt Rebecca, even though nobody to whom he speaks has a good word to say about the woman. The twins’ parents died in a fire following a visit from Rebecca and her husband, so when Calico and the twins are almost killed themselves in a fire the first night out, Calico begins to suspect something sinister. As their journey continues it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill the three of them before they can get to Rebecca’s house. Calico must protect his two charges, figure out what is going on and why, and deal with the burgeoning love and attraction he feels for Josh.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a big reader of Westerns, and am not, unfortunately, any kind of expert in the time. Nothing in the setting of this book, or the behaviour of the characters pinged me as wrong for 19th Century America, but take that with a pinch of salt as I can’t speak with any kind of knowledge on the subject. What the book reminded me of most of all was the kind of TV Western series which I watched when I was growing up. It had the same kind of strong but decent, openhearted characters, a laconic expression and stoicism that covered up deep emotions and a real appreciation of a seemingly endless landscape, with all the beauty and freedom and danger that represented.

I was also reminded of these old series because the book proceeds in a number of episodes, each of which end in a cliffhanger. There is a lot of welcome action; a memorable gunfight, runaway horses, arson, ambushes and kidnapping – there’s really no chance to ever get bored. And if, like me, you find constant action a bit wearing too, you’ll still like this book because the action is interspersed with some lovely quiet moments; companionship around the campfire, the very sweet and tender romance between Calico and Josh, moments where the beauty of the countryside comes through, and moments of good food and hospitality from strangers who become friends.

After reading Brokeback Mountain, it’s slightly hard for me to believe that neither Calico nor Josh have much in the way of angst about accepting their attraction for men in general and each other in particular, and even harder to believe that nobody in the book who knows about it seems to have a problem with it. But Dorien Gray writes the characters in such a way that I was prepared to believe that these particular people are simply fortunate in their emotional makeup and friends, rather than feeling that the whole society was anachronistic.

I enjoyed the fact that the greater part of the story took place over a journey from the railway station to the Aunt’s house. It really gave a picture of how difficult travel was in those days. I also enjoyed the mystery, and although I had worked out who the villain was, and why they were doing this, by the time it was revealed, I hadn’t done it so early on as to be disappointed with the heroes for not realising it earlier.

My main problem with the book, and why it only gets a four and a half star review rather than a five, is the ending. The final confrontation with the villain is over very easily and for a moment I almost thought we’d lost a gunman. Although I find I was wrong about that and he was accounted for, my impression was still that the villain is disappointingly easily dealt with at the end.

More than this, though, I felt that the romance was denied a scene that it needed to round it off. Throughout the book, Calico had been saying to himself and Josh “I’ll think about that later. I’ll think about it when you’re 18. I’ll think about it once we’re out of this life threatening peril.” All of which was very sensible and you couldn’t help agreeing that he was right to look at it that way. However, the end of the book finds Josh 18 and the life-threatening peril out of the way, but there never is a scene where Calico does that thinking and makes that ‘yes, we’re a couple’ decision that the book (I thought) had been leading up to. So I felt the romance part of the plot suffered from a lack of resolution. I’d have liked to see Calico make the commitment to Josh that had been hinted at throughout.

However, the ending does leave the two of them together, so I can happily imagine that they get that bit sorted out off camera, so to speak, and although I would have liked to see a more romance focussed ending, it doesn’t in any way take away from how much I enjoyed everything that went before it. I’ll definitely be reading this one again with a lot of pleasure.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for the perceptive and very kind review of “Calico,” Alex. Your points…and minor caveats…are well taken, and I was aware while I was writing the book that they might arise.

    “Calico” is also directed at a younger audience, specifically to those thousands and thousands of gay teenagers and young people who have very few role models in literature.

    As for the relatively quick resolution, you are correct, though I felt while writing it that it had the requisite Perils of Pauline swiftness. And I did not add a descriptive consummation of the romance between Calico and Josh because I did not want to risk its being labeled a “sex story” by those who, as Alexander King put it, “see obscenity in the crotch of every tree.” I sincerely hope the fact that they rode off into the sunset together would indicate their future.

    Again, thank you!

    • Thanks for the reply, Dorien! I wasn’t thinking of a sex scene as a resolution – I agree that wouldn’t have been necessary at all. I was just hoping for a scene where they they finally sit down and have ‘the talk’. I think Josh makes it very clear to Calico throughout that he’s thinking of Calico as the one for him, but Calico never quite makes that final declaration back to Josh. As readers who can see into Calico’s thoughts, we know it’s there, but I had the impression that Calico never actually said it to Josh. It is pretty clear that he means to even if he hasn’t, but I’d have liked to be there when he did.

      But yes, we know from Calico’s character that he’s going to act honourably and they have a good future ahead. I was just hoping for a declaration of love and it didn’t quite come :)

  2. These are both excellent points. I tend to lean toward Dorien’s view because Calico is a man of few words, but I can see it the other way, too. Thanks for calling attention to this fine work. In my mind, it’s kind of a classic.

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