The Last Cowgirl: A Novel

The Last Cowgirl: A Novel

by Jana Richman


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They say you can't go home again, but sometimes, you don't have a choice

Dickie Sinfield was seven years old when her father decided to become a cowboy and move his family from their comfortable suburban home to a small run-down ranch in Clayton, Utah. From her first stock show to the day she turns eighteen and flees for the comforts of the city, Dickie bucks the cattle-ranching lifestyle and yearns for manicured lawns, housebroken pets, and neighborhood playmates. Yet she reluctantly finds herself drawn to the vast, desolate landscape of the desert and the solitude it offers—a feeling she won't acknowledge even within herself.

Now a grown woman, Dickie is a respected reporter in Salt Lake City, convinced that physical distance and a convenient but passionless relationship will erase the memory of her painful childhood. But when her brother dies in a tragic accident, Dickie finds herself back in the farmhouse she tried so desperately to abandon. Suddenly, she is faced with her family's past and a love she's never admitted to, bringing down the walls of her carefully contrived existence.

Accustomed to the physical boundaries city life entails, Dickie feels emotionally exposed by the fenceless expanse of the ranch. As she navigates her past, piecing together relationships, romance, and the pull of the mountains themselves, she finally confronts the pivotal moment of her childhood—the horrifying discovery that made her flee the desert so many years ago.

A novel that spans two generations and vast landscapes, The Last Cowgirl brings to mind the writing of Pam Houston and Barbara Kingsolver. Richman's provocative prose, pulled from personal experience, will strike a chord with anyone who has been faced with demons from their past and found solace in the space around them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061257193
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/27/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 8.02(w) x 5.32(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

Jana Richman lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, Steve Defa. She is the author of the memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail. She invites readers to e-mail her at

Read an Excerpt

The Last Cowgirl
A Novel

Chapter One

I was seven when my father decided to be a cowboy. At the time it seemed to happen with a jarring abruptness, my summer attire went from sunsuits and Keds to snap-button shirts and boots faster than my sister, Annie, could pick up jacks, and Annie held our neighborhood's title as Queen of Jacks. Since then—nearly forty-six years ago—I've blamed anything that needed blaming on what Annie refers to as Dad's "Gil Favor complex." This system of culpability has been a reliable one, comfortably accommodating every failure in my life, including the ultimate failure—to get married and spawn offspring—so I find no reason to abandon it now. Especially when I am in desperate need. My brother, Heber, is dead. Poisoned by nerve gas. And, if anyone cares to do the footwork, I am quite sure the path will lead directly back to a surprisingly frigid spring day in 1962 when Grandpa Sinfield keeled over from a heart attack and left my father nothing but an old bay horse named Rangy.

I pinpoint that event as the rock that dropped into the puddle of our family and splattered us Sinfields out of a collective life of ordinariness into five separate pieces scrambling for a soft place to land. But Annie says Dad's cowboy dreams had been sizzling and popping for years before that, sort of like a cheap aluminum coffeepot left on the stove long after the liquid had boiled away. Grandpa Sinfield was a hired hand for a cattle company in Blacksmith Fork Canyon in the Bear River Range of Utah's Rocky Mountains, a place where cold, clear trout-filled streams wound through tall wheatgrass, ponderosa pine, and quakin'asp' trees. Dad never had much to say about the days he spent as a boy riding alongside his father on horseback. But Aunt Alma, Dad's older sister and only sibling, told us those old stories as if they would explain everything we'd ever need to know about Dad, like why he wore cowboy boots with dress slacks and what caused him to spit forth a string of profanity upon little provocation. Alma said that during those shaded summer days, when Dad knew every fork in every canyon and any place a lost cow or calf might be found, the world made more sense to young George Sinfield than it ever had once he stepped outside the deep gorges of Blacksmith Fork.

He wasn't more than six years old the first time Frank Clark, an old sheepherder in Righthand Fork, told him the story of how he trapped and killed Old Ephraim, the last of the great grizzlies to wander the Bear River Range, with nothing but a .30-30 rifle and a prayer. Frank showed the boy the path Old Ephraim had taken from the wallow that held the trap directly into Frank's camp, still evident years later from gouges on aspen trees made by an angry grizzly dragging a twenty-three-pound trap chained to a large log. From that point forward through the next twelve years, every time George stood at Old Ephraim's grave site, excitement and reverence gushed through his veins and caught him just below the Adam's apple. So when, upon high school graduation, his father presented him with the cash he'd been stuffing in an unused saddlebag over the last eighteen years to get his son an education and an occupation that would garner more respect than that of hired hand, George initially balked. It was only the look of pride in his father's eyes that pulled the boy out of the mountains and deposited him onto a college campus. As a consequence, it was nothing but an old man's idea of generational betterment that led to my and my siblings' birth in the small town of Ganoa, two hundred miles southwest of Blacksmith Fork Canyon in Utah's west desert, where Dad, fresh out of college, took a job as an elementary school teacher, giving Grandpa bragging rights among the other hands—his son wore a tie and had a retirement plan. But ten years stuck in a classroom, where a cross breeze had to be coaxed through six-inch window openings, could not shake loose the sound of shivering aspen trees running through Dad's head like a melody.

George Sinfield married Ruth Pace as quickly as he could talk her into it—two years and eight months after they graduated from high school. As soon as he entered college she set her intentions to marry him—she was attracted to an educated man—but after high school she had a Salt Lake City apartment and a job behind the lunch counter at Kress's waiting for her, an experience she wasn't going to miss. Once that romance wore itself out, she married George.

She kept her job while George finished college, and their early years of marriage were filled with weekends of loading eight or ten friends into a car and driving out to Saltair at the Great Salt Lake to dance on the bouncing, spring-loaded floor to the sound of the big bands playing their way to the West Coast. Mom would swoon and swirl when she recounted those stories, and Dad would smile while he leaned against the doorjamb watching her until she'd put on a record and they'd dance their way around the loop that incorporated the kitchen and living room in our Ganoa house. Mom said both the dancing and the friends disappeared as soon as Heber was born. I understood that to mean it was unequivocally Heber's fault. Had Annie or I been born first, our lives would have been filled with music, dancing, and laughter, and Dad would have always carried the untroubled look that fell over his face every time Mom started humming "Stardust."

Alma followed her brother to Ganoa, bought a cinderblock house about three blocks from ours, and took a job as a lunchroom lady in the same school where George taught. For the most part Aunt Alma, Mom, and Dad sort of came as a set. Ruth Pace didn't so much embrace motherhood as simply resign herself to the role, unable to imagine—growing up in the Mormon religion as she did—any viable alternatives, so she generously shared all aspects of the position with Aunt Alma. Annie, Heber, and I always took her presence in our lives for granted.

The Last Cowgirl
A Novel
. Copyright © by Jana Richman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. <%END%>

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Last Cowgirl 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you like a book with dialogue that makes the characters come alive and just enough description that a sense of place lives within you, you will love this novel. The writing is absolutely superb and the characters will long live in my memory. The main character, Dickie, is not your ordinary girl: her emotional landscape perfectly matches the Utah basin where she begrudgingly resides. This book was good to the last drop. Highly recommended!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love the characters in this book. They show how hard it is to understand family dynamics when growing up. They show how much you have to communicate when you care for someone. The horse riding is awesome!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great characters and the place came alive in this story of one family's pursuit of a father's dream.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Now fifty-two years old and never married Dickie Sinfield looks back on her childhood when her father moved the family from the burbs to a Utah cattle ranch at seven she went from suburban princess to mucking cowgirl. Over a decade after the transformation, eighteen year old Dickie had enough with the rough lifestyle and fled the ranch for Salt Lake City where she became a reporter.------------ Over the decades Dickie wants nothing much to do with her family and denies her feelings for her childhood friend Stumpy Nelson. However, her mortality comes home to roost forcing her to reexamine her feelings when her brother, Hebert dies in a poison gas accident at Dugway Proving Grounds. She returns to the ranch for his funeral and to face her family, her friends, and mostly herself.------------ This is an interesting family drama that looks deep at the impact emotionally on decisions in which people have reasonable choices to make of fascination is how easily humans rationalize the selection vs. the rejections. In an aside subplot related to Herbert¿s death, the Feds are nuked by Jana Richman for their disregard of safety when it comes to handling of chemical and biological weapons, but the prime plot is people justifying poor choices.------- Harriet Klausner