Hands down, Bull Rider is the best all around family read that I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing this year. Suzanne Morgan Williams has written what many young adult writers hope for, a story with such heart, depth, and honesty that every family member who can read (including grandparents) will take something from it. The setting is pure West where the fictional city of Salt Lick, Nevada is the home of the O’Mara’s family-owned cattle ranch. The story comes from young Cam O’Mara, the fourteen year-old brother of Ben who, when the story opens, has just returned from his first tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq. We know Cam’s family as he does: Mom and Dad, his little sister Lali, and his grandfather, Grandpa Roy, a widower and co-owner of the ranch. Mom’s mother is Grandma Jean who lives five hours away in Hawthorne. They are family that will stick.
Salt Lick is a rural community consisting of a couple of churches, a grange hall, a new post office and a “gasoline/grocery store.” Cam’s brother Ben, Nevada State High School Bull Riding Champion before he enlisted followed Dad and Grandpa Roy as bull riders. Cam takes his danger on asphalt as a competitive skateboarder. He’d rather “master something that I could roll under my bed when I was done with it.” The depth and honesty of “Bull Rider” rises from the straightforward directness of William’s prose.
Ben returns to Iraq with disastrous results. His next trip Stateside is as a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) patient. Williams is at her best in describing a family’s complex sense of loss and their intense search for hope. Cam’s not a saint — his reaction to his brother’s injury is wrapped in his guilt for being uninjured, and for not wanting to give up skateboarding for bull riding (which he discovers he is very good at–maybe even better than his brother). His grades slip, his lifelong friendships are threatened and he puts his relationship with his parents in great jeopardy.
Williams has done her homework in researching the arduous journey of a TBI patient and his family. Financial arrangements are put on the back of the ranch to pay for travel and other medical expenses not covered by the military. It is most moving because all these details come from the point of view of a young teen coping as best he can. Cam’s voice also tells us what family ranch life is really like, its hardships and rewards and its possible future. The author shines at making the sports of skateboarding and bull riding exciting and almost understandable.
Family and community themes ring with a sometimes, harsh reality, but the author never loses sight of her storyline. Does Cam ever ride the largest and most feared bull, aptly named Ugly? I’m not telling, but if the bull is called Ugly, then the book, Bull Rider, is aptly called beautiful.