Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jana Richman's "The Last Cowgirl"

Jana Richman is the author of the memoir Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail and her first novel, The Last Cowgirl.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to the debut novel and reported the following:
The quality of the whole will be revealed ... In a novel, I would have to say the quality of the whole largely depends on three elements: intriguing characters, a compelling story, and good writing. Does page 99 of The Last Cowgirl give a representative sample of each?

On page 99, Dickie Sinfield, the main character and narrator of the story, returns to the newsroom at The Beehive Banner, a Mormon church-owned daily where she is a journalist, after hearing about her brother’s death from an accident at the U.S. Army’s nerve gas incinerator located in Utah’s west desert — also the location of the small ranch where Dickie grew up. We find out a little bit about her in the opening paragraph as she walks through the unusually quiet newsroom into her editor’s office:

Charlie and I had been hired at the paper within weeks of each other twenty-five years ago and had gravitated toward each other as outcasts tend to do. I was the most radical apostate the church had ever hired ... and Charlie was one of about ten African-American Mormons in the entire state at the time...

Although Charlie has given her time off, Dickie is intent on finding out exactly what happened at the incinerator the day her brother, Heber, died. She knows from past experience that the Army will not offer up information without a fight, and she’s hoping Charlie will help her wage that fight. As is her style, Dickie hides her pain behind sarcasm and a tough exterior:

“What the hell’s wrong with everybody out there?” I ask. “I can’t be the first person to have a death in the family.”

“No, but I’m pretty sure you’re the first to have one killed by nerve gas.”

“That doesn’t make me toxic — although growing up in Ganoa County might.”

From page 99, we do get a glimpse of Dickie’s character, but we get an awfully narrow view of the story itself. Although the relationship between the U.S Army and the west desert ranchers is an integral part of the story, it is not a good representation of the whole, which is about love, loss, passion, regret, and our relationship to the geography around us. As for the “good writing” criteria, I’ll leave that up to the readers.
Read an excerpt from The Last Cowgirl and learn more about the novel from the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue