Marsha Ward’s western novel, Ride to Raton, reminded me why I swore off reading fiction a long time ago: I can’t put the story down. I let housework, bookwork, writing, visiting teaching, and all my routines slide because I absolutely have to know what happens next. Luckily I no longer have children at home to neglect while I read that one last chapter.
I’m just one generation removed from the ranch. Or is it two? My mother was born on a homestead in New Mexico, and I have two uncles who worked cattle all their lives. The title of Marsha’s book resonated with me, because I remember the title town from conversations in my grandmother’s living room when the old cowboy stories were circulating. Since Raton is northern New Mexico and we lived in the south, it probably had to do with rodeos, as my uncles competed in the 1930’s.
Another thing Marsha’s book reminded me of was the old adage that there are two sides to every story. In her first novel, Man from Shenandoah, we’re introduced to the Owen clan and follow their trek west after the Civil War. We also follow Carl’s romance with Ellen and sigh when he gets the girl. It matters not that Ellen is promised to his brother James, because she loves Carl. All ends well.
Except for James. Ride to Raton opens with Carl and Ellen’s wedding, and we see what we didn’t see in the first book: their happiness is James’s open wound. Unable to stay and witness their wedded bliss, James leaves everything he has in the world and sets out, penniless, to find someplace where he can make his fortune while he heals.
Marsha Ward has the ability to put you in the time and place. The west during the mid-1800s was not a hospitable region, and she doesn’t romanticize it. I was particularly moved by how Marsha described the treatment of a gunshot injury James receives, first by the local doctor and then by an old friend from back home.
Marsha does a good job of setting up the adventures that James has and making them believable, and she carries those adventures through to the very end. She also makes communication between James and Amparo (a young lady from Santa Fe) believable as they travel alone together. He speaks no Spanish; she speaks no English.
Marsha’s use of imagery is a treat. For instance: “…she had slipped from his grasp like quick-silver chased across a tabletop.” Those of us who grew up before knowledge of mercury poisoning know how hard it is to pick up a dollop of quicksilver. It’s a very elusive metal. Here’s another: “Only much later did sleep lay a quilt of blackness over his exhausted body.” And one last one: “…with the November sun pouting on the breast of a hazy sky.” Don’t you love it? The book is littered with similar gems.
You don’t have to read Man from Shenandoah first. Ride to Raton stands on its own very well, and it leaves us caring about James Owen and wondering what will happen to him next.