One of the most told stories in fiction is the one where a kid — boy or girl — has something to prove (to himself or others), and overcomes odds (no matter how small) and trials in order to achieve what he/she set out to do. This story — about a girl on a northern Indiana cattle farm—is really no different. Libby Ryan wants to prove — to herself and her dad — that she can raise and show steers as well as her older brother did. She has to overcome her insecurities, figure out how to raise the two steers she’s chosen, learn how to show the steer properly, and — most of all — learn how to let go.
Initially, it seems like a fairly trite story, and in some ways it is: part of the conflict is some cardboard cut-out baddies in the form of three über-shallow Darling sisters. There are times when the Darlings seem to serve little or no purpose, except to show that prissy girls shouldn’t be in the cattle-showing racket.
That said, it’s a good cow book. Michelle Houts has a genuine affection for the country and the people who work the land, as well as for the animals, and it shows. The animals are not just background or plot devices, but actual characters: living, breathing entities, with personalities that you, as a reader, come to understand and cheer for. The language she uses to describe the cows — “beautiful eyes, framed so perfectly by those long, wispy lashes” and “cheerful enthusiasm” and “playfully wrapped his long, rough tongue around my hand” — shows that Houts not only knows cows, but has a genuine affection for them.
If it sounds like a book only 4H people would love, it isn’t. Yeah, it’s about ranching and farming and small towns (and maybe I liked it because I have all of that in some form or other in my history), it’s also because it is about accomplishing something difficult and learning how to do the hard things in life.
Which is something everyone can relate to.