A conflicted woman faces the ghosts of her desert childhood in this heartfelt Western drama from Richman (Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, 2005).
Darlene “Dickie” Sinfield was determined to escape her rustic roots. But even after 30 years away, working in the trenches of big-city journalism, it’s clear that she has only nominally succeeded. The death of her cowpoke brother Heber, poisoned in a military accident, brings her back from Salt Lake City to Clayton, an austere backwater in the high desert. The place has left a mark, as evidenced by her thoughtful, evocative remembrance. Her father is abusive, beating her sister Annie with a horse halter and cloaking his own weaknesses with a false bravado. Her mother, unfulfilled, seeks company with a convivial neighbor, Bev Christensen. Our heroine’s childhood is severe: “Dropped off a horse onto her head. She’ll be fine. Dragged by a steer. She’ll be fine…. Branded. She’ll be fine. Shot at. She’ll be fine.” At what point, Dickie asks, “do the actions of grown-ups add up to a child who actually won’t be fine?” Ironically, it’s the reluctant cowgirl who shows real talent. Her father, by contrast, is a refugee suburbanite seeking a life cribbed from television westerns. Now back in Clayton, Dickie struggles to come to terms with her family’s unconventional foibles and her traumatic encounter with the nerve gas that drove her away and finally killed her brother. She must also resolve her paradoxical affections for an urbane doctor and the laconic, straightforward cowboy, Stumpy Nelson, whose affections surface upon the prodigal daughter’s return.
Richman’s mastery of the emotional geography is illuminating, and Dickie’s dichotomous affections call to mind the work of Pat Conroy.