Susan Juby’s kind of cowboy is rather fine. Alex Ford has always been obsessed with horses, especially the structured control and exactness of dressage, which as a child he called “corsage” until corrected by his aunt, Grace. Like Grace, Alex’s father, Brian, understands but distinctly does not share the obsession. Nonetheless, when Alex is eleven, his father wins an old nag in a poker game and brings him home to Alex, and Alex’s real life begins. The horse, Colonel Turnipseed, “Turnip” for short, is trained Western and comes with Western tack, so Alex’s father arranges for Western lessons: he “loved having a cowboy for a son” (15). The degree of vicarious machismo Brian Ford felt watching his son compete—and win—in the “performance-based” competitions was not lost on his son, who nonetheless still dreamed of dressage. Eventually, circumstances conspire to present him with the opportunity to begin again: in dressage rather than Western. Alex’s strength of personality—a strength he possesses but does not believe in—coupled with his determination and natural riding ability set him on a new path, no less troubled but certainly more rewarding than his life to date.
Juby creates a community for Alex that will ring true, I think, for readers from all demographics. He is relatively poor, from a disorganized, broken home, but with drive and a dream. His fellow student is a spoilt rich girl sent to a private, girls-only riding school on Vancouver Island as “punishment” for her naïve lack of judgment concerning the family chauffeur. Alex’s twin sisters and aunt are the perfect foils for his up-tight insecurities, made worse by his alcoholic father. The dynamic within the family is a brilliant balance of sibling intolerance, teen anger and angst, and embarrassment, underscored by compassion and understanding that is revealed in small glimmers throughout the novel. While we unequivocally like Alex, we also come to like and appreciate the people who surround him. There is no bully to contend with, no individual antagonist to stand up against; Alex’s life is complicated, troubled, and rewarding. Juby presents his conflicting concerns—continuing with dressage without a horse, and coming out to his family and friends—as similarly weighted in Alex’s mind, and I think this is one of the most refreshing elements in the book. Alex is gay; he knows that; he is highly insecure about letting his overly macho father know it. Alex loves dressage; he has worked hard to be in the ring; the horse he is using is taken away from him. Both to young Alex are monumental crises, and it is to Juby’s credit that Alex is permitted to find the strength within himself to own who he is, and his father is permitted to show his real love of his son by helping to solve the real problems: despite his own initial homophobic feelings, Brian Ford comes through, and both Alex’s worries are sufficiently alleviated.
That sounds, I think, like the relationship between Alex and his father is paramount in the text: it is not. It is a deep current underlying so much more going on. It is, however, for me, the most poignant relationship. If “it takes a village to raise a child,” Alex Ford lives in the right family and community. They are not perfect—none of them—but together they create (well, Juby creates) a community that while (like all the world) built of damaged, flawed human beings, is nonetheless supportive and real.