After Miss Bates read the first few chapters of Nicole Helm’s Rebel Cowboy, she thought, “I get it. This is what happens when you cross Molly O’Keefe with Maisey Yates.” At times, Helm felt derivative; at others, uniquely her writerly self. Helm writes a hockey-playing hero and that’s one kind of hero Miss Bates never passes up. No one writes about the game’s darkness as O’Keefe does; if you’re looking for that kind of profound understanding in hero Dan Sharpe, you ain’t gonna get it. On the other hand, Helm offers a rich narrative, balancing guffaw-inspiring humour with wrenching angst.
Dan Sharpe’s and Mel Shaw’s legacies are Montana ranches. Mel’s cared for the land and animals her entire life: “On her eighteenth birthday … her father … told her, someday, what lay below would be hers. It had all been very Lion King.” Ten years later, Mel’s “Lion King” moment has turned nightmare: ” … a barely surviving ranch, a delinquent brother determined to burn every Shaw bridge, an injured and withdrawn father, thousands of dollars in medical bills, and livestock that needed to be cared for … These days it felt more like a noose than a gift.” Mel leaves the Shaw ranch in brother Caleb’s less-than-capable hands to rent her ranching know-how to Dan, whose Chicago hockey career is imploding with rumours of cheating. Ranching expert meets ranching wannabe.
Dan is “hiding out” at his grandfather’s abandoned Montana ranch, the dilapidated “Paulle place”. Some memory, however, niggles, of his grandfather telling him how meaningful and purposeful life on the ranch was, how it could be Dan’s as well. Dan’s plans are to return to hockey and prove the rumours wrong. For the time being, he’s going to see if his grandfather’s words could ring true for him. Dan hires Mel Shaw to show him ranching ways. She continues to live at the neighbouring Shaw ranch, but teaches Dan how to bring the Paulle place back to life during the day. Their initial, antagonistic exchanges are hilariously sharp and the banter glorious to read. Mel’s no-nonsense ranching expertise and contempt for Dan’s successful-and-rich-arrogance is a great pairing. Add their obvious hots for each other and the push-pull of attraction and repulsion that makes the genre so entertaining is evident for page after page. Miss Bates’s favourite moment comes with a mysterious animal’s arrival. Dan stares at it and it stares at Dan. Miss B. can’t help but quote this droll moment:
There was a thing. A not-small furry animal thing standing at the fence, staring at him expectantly. He stared back at the animal, then helplessly at his phone. Hey, cell service. He googled random animal names he thought the thing could be until he found a picture that looked mostly right. A llama.
Helm’s symbolic manipulation of the llama is brilliantly delightful. Dan calls her/him Mystery and she/he embodies everything that stumps and frustrates him and everything he wants to build. As Dan’s hockey career recedes, llama, ranch, and Mel, frustrating, beautiful Mel, take the forefront in his life.
About half-way through, the narrative shifts from mostly funny to mostly angsty. Dan and Mel are psychically wounded people. Dan’s memories of his parents’ divorce when he was five are riddled with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a little boy’s breakdown. Mel’s problems lie not only in the her present dire situation of debt and family estrangement, but go back to her mother’s abandonment and present inability to trust in love and Dan. Miss Bates thought that the narrative weakened from hereon. Dan seems to spontaneously recover from his psychic wounds while Mel falls ever more deeply into hers. Moreover, the narrative dwells on them rather than developping through them. “Prune, prune, prune,” thought Miss Bates.
As the narrative carries on in its angsty way, a deus ex machina wrench is thrown into its weakened workings and sequel-bait screams. Nevertheless, some things are done really well. The love scenes for one, though intense and explicit, serve to reflect and develop the relationship and are not pepppered throughout for the sake of adding another love scene. After they do their job, they rightly – hallelujah – fade to black. The grovel, without indulging in spoilers, is magnificent and genre-bending. Miss Bates says Helm’s Rebel Cowboy does MORE things right than wrong and she greatly looks forward to the sequel. With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates deems Rebel Cowboy evident of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Nicole Helm’s Rebel Cowboy is published by Sourcebooks. It was released on January 5th, 2016, and is available in paper and “e” at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.