Bill Sidey wants someone he knows well to watch his kids while his wife has surgery, and so he looks up a rank old cowboy, Calvin Sidey, who happens to be the father who virtually abandoned him when he was a boy.
Done with school, Calvin signed on as a ranch hand instead of joining the family real estate business in Gladstone, Montana. There, Sidey was "a name that connoted power and influence." Calvin later fought in the trenches of World War I. Then he came home with a French bride and took to the family’s business. After his wife died during a vacation, Calvin went first to the bottle and then back to the cowboy life. Son Bill and daughter Jeanette, not yet adults, were left behind, seeing Calvin rarely. Now in the 1960s, Bill runs the family business, but with his wife, Marjorie, facing serious surgery in far-off Missoula, there’s no one to watch over 17-year-old Ann and her younger brother, Will. Motivation here, as with Calvin’s earlier abandonment, seems amorphous and must be intuited by the reader, but Watson (Let Him Go, 2013, etc.) deepens the story with secondary characters and spare, clear, Hemingway-esque prose. Notable is the Sideys' neighbor, retired teacher Beverly Lodge, who falls in love with Calvin. Then there's Bill's wife, Marjorie. She had a wild teen romance with a cowboy, perhaps the root of her distrust of free-spirited Calvin. Finally, there's Lonnie Black Pipe, Bill’s promising classmate–turned–scarred barroom brawler. Character conflict draws blood when Calvin’s Old West code compels him to intervene when preteen Will becomes entangled with a group of rowdy boys and Ann’s stalked by a violent Gladstone newcomer. The latter confrontation, with Calvin’s "capacity for ferocity," deserves a Clint Eastwood performance.
Watson’s powerful characterizations frame large and connected themes: family loyalty, the conflicting capacities of love, and the tenuous connections between humans.