Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby
If not for dressage, “the art of training a horse in classical obedience and precision of movement,” Alex Ford and Cleo O’Shea would probably have never met. Alex had been a horse-mad boy; Cleo’s mother thought she was horse-mad, when Cleo was really only crazy about plastic toy horses. Cleo was too afraid to jump horses, so ended up in dressage; Alex had dreamed about dressage ever since he first saw it on television as a kid (and seriously, how can you not love the kid after the prologue?) but had no opportunity to try it. Cleo’s parents sent her, and her brand new horse, to a boarding school for equestriennes after she showed some really poor judgment, not because she was actually a serious horsewoman; Alex is a serious horseman who can only wish his family could afford a dressage horse. Not that anyone knows dressage is what he really yearns for, because Alex hasn’t told anyone. He knows his father wouldn’t approve.
The first thing I noticed about Another Kind of Cowboy was Susan Juby‘s voice. I haven’t read her previous books (well, I’ve read part of Alice, I Think, but I didn’t finish it), so I can’t compare Another Kind of Cowboy to them. But there was something about the voice and tone of this book, wry and witty, that reminded me of Lily Archer’s The Poison Apples and had me instantly hooked. (In other words, Gayle, I think you’d like it.) I know, The Poison Apples uses three different first-person POVs, and in Another Kind of Cowboy, Juby writes Alex’s chapters in third-person and Cleo’s in first, but I still think the comparison works.
What doesn’t completely work in Another Kind of Cowboy is Cleo. Her character was just not as well-developed as Alex’s, which may be a result of the different POVs. But then, Alex is characterized so brilliantly from the very first page, in passages like this one (not from the first page, but pages 20-21), that he more than makes up for it.
Alex was so busy admiring them he was surprised when the girl turned her head slightly and stared right at him. At first he wasn’t sure how to react, and he gave her what he hoped was a friendly smile. He’d fallen out of the habit of smiling in the last few years. The girl looked away and he was flooded with embarrassment, standing there in his cowboy boots and big buckle, an unfamiliar smile sitting on his face like a fake moustache. The girl looked like she belonged in the pages of Town and Country and here was was, gawking at her.
Alex might be dressed like a cowboy but he didn’t feel totally comfortable in the role. Real cowboys dreamed of girls with big hair and tight jeans, bars with sawdust floors and cows and the open range. His dreams ran more to other cowboys as well as firemen, cops, and, for some reason he’d yet to figure out, paramedics. The less open range and the fewer cows, the better.
You don’t need to like horses, or even know anything about them, to enjoy Another Kind of Cowboy. It’s more than just a horse book, because while there is a lot of horse stuff—I have no idea what any of that “L to S, half pass left,” etc. at the end of chapter two means, but it was still, somehow, really funny—it’s the relationships between people that matters more. Alex and Cleo both wind up taking dressage lessons from Fergus and Ivan at Limestone Farm, and in the grand tradition of YA literature, end up learning more about themselves, each other, and other people than they do about dressage. And Alex may be gay, and he may not have told anyone at the start of the story, but it’s not a secret for long and not as big a deal as dressage. Another Kind of Cowboy is more than just a horse book or coming-of-age story or coming out story. It’s a great story, period.