>Waltzing Cowboys by Sarah Collins Honenberger

>Waltzing Cowboys
Sarah Collins Honenberger
Cedar Creek Publishing 2008, $15.95

This engaging small novel has feet in two worlds. It begins in the West, in the land of cowboys and horses and rugged terrain, and at that point the reader would be forgiven if she mistook the story for something by Annie Proulx. It then shifts—by train, sticking close to the land—to the gritty streets of New York, and becomes primarily an urban tale, despite its protagonist’s longing for open spaces.

This is the story of Rhue Hogan, a man who is too old to keep up with the young Montana cowboys he works with. Reluctantly—when he wakes up in a hospital room with a broken leg and begins to take stock of his life—he concludes that it’s time to make up for something he did forty years earlier: walking out on his pregnant wife. And so he says goodbye to Montana and his disparate friends, boards a train, and heads East, not knowing whether he’ll even be able to find Adriana and their son, Ford, or what he’ll say to them if does. Meanwhile, Ford, for the first time in his life, is beginning to ask questions about his father, a man with whom he has far more in common than he realizes.

When they were young, Rhue and Adriana had big plans—they were going to join the Peace Corps and serve in Africa. (As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer myself, I’m always intrigued by such characters.) But their plans changed when Adriana became pregnant, and, feeling trapped, Rhue disappeared. Ford, on the other hand, had few plans for his life, but, ironically, he did manage to get to Africa in the Peace Corps to fulfill his parents’ dreams. Yet he’s been in a comfortable, aimless laboratory ever job since then, running through a series of meaningless relationships with women he can barely remember. Until he meets Evie, a younger woman who is the first to get to him, the first person he can share his feelings with.

As the book alternates between the points of view of father and son, the reader eagerly anticipates their first meeting and the potential fireworks it’s sure to generate. But Honenberger skillfully delays that meeting, building suspense by interposing obstacle after obstacle. The train trip takes a long time, giving us the chance to feel Rhue’s pain (both the literal pain in his leg and his decades-old psychic pain). Ford is becoming increasingly attracted to Evie, and they leave town together, raising the likelihood that he won’t even be in the City when Rhue gets there. And Rhue suffers a series of mishaps upon arrival at Penn Station, while both father and son develop intense misgivings about meeting. Meanwhile, the tension builds . . .

The title of the novel refers to the “dance” Rhue does with his favorite horse, Delilah, in the portion of the book, but it also is suggestive of what Rhue did to his family in the past—he waltzed out of Adriana’s life. And in this novel, that’s what fathers do in one way or another. Rhue’s own father was distant and unsupportive. Evie’s father was abusive, in more ways than one. The two street kids Rhue meets on his first day in New York are from troubled families, including one father who is often absent because of his problems with the police. With fathers like these populating the world—there don’t seem to be any good role models in the book—is it any wonder that Ford has trouble contemplating commitment and children? Cowboy fathers walk—or waltz—because that’s what men do. And the question the book asks is this: Is there any way to recover from all that? Is it possible for fathers to come back? Is there a second chance?

Despite the charm of the story and the narrative energy that moves it forward, making it a thoroughly enjoyable read, I did find myself balking in places at characters who seemed less than believable. The street boys, Rip and the Wizard, who appear threatening at first glance, didn’t feel genuine to me, nor did I fully believe that Rhue would follow them, or, for that matter, that he would allow himself to be pulled along to Central Park by the woman Cecily, whom he meets outside the train station. It’s also somewhat unbelievable that Rhue would not attempt to call from Montana before making the trip, a wonder that even he remarks on.

But these are minor complaints about a story—and main characters—that held my interest from start to finish.

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