Book Review: Cowgirl Up!

cowgirlup-cover-3x5Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women by Heidi M. Thomas provides an exciting insight into women’s role in one of America’s greatest passions, rodeo.

American rodeo started at small ranch gatherings when cowboys showed off their roping, bulldogging (steer wrestling), and riding prowess. In those days, it was pretty much a male sport.

Many ranch girls learned to rope and ride as they helped their fathers, brothers and later their husbands with ranch work. These girls learned to “cowgirl up,” which means to rise to the occasion without whining or complaining. As local competition became popular events, girls got into the spirit and began competing with the men. Girls’ involvement raised some eyebrows, but they persisted, often wearing cumbersome skirts to be less offensive and more ladylike. Even so, many people thought of rodeo cowgirls as “loose women.”

Cowgirl Up! is about these women of rodeo, many of whom started their careers as young as fourteen, competing against and often earning higher points than seasoned cowboys.

The 1920s were rodeo heydays for cowgirls, producing more champion female riders than any time since. These girls knew hardships, but persisted in their rodeo dreams.

Soon organized circuits formed and performers traveled from rodeo to rodeo, paying their own travel expenses and fees, often sleeping in tents. Many women brought their babies with them. It was a tough life for both men and women, but in addition to roping, riding bucking broncs, staying atop a writhing, twisting bull, these women made it their business to still appear feminine when not in the arena.

Two fatal injuries in1929 and 1933 among notable women competitors contributed to eliminating women from the Rodeo Association of America (RAA), later renamed Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), events.

Despite these setbacks, women persisted in rodeo competition, turning to smaller privately-produced rodeos. Many became national stars, sought after by such venues as Madison Square Garden in New York. New events geared toward women were added including trick riding, barrel racing and breakaway roping (where a calf is roped, but not thrown).

Cowgirl Up! is a riveting and personal account of individual Montana women who followed their dreams to hard-won fame. Tenacity is a common thread among their impressive achievements. One thing that surprised me was that despite broken bones, concussions, torn muscles and ligaments, many of these strong women have lived into their nineties.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a notable personality. My favorite is Oprah Winfrey’s “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” That quote perfectly sums up the cowgirls’ struggle for rodeo recognition.

Author Heidi M. Thomas grew up on a working Montana ranch and speaks with authority on rodeo history. Her grandmother rode bucking stock in the early days of rodeo and Thomas’ trilogy–Cowgirl Dreams, Follow the Dream, and Dare to Dream–are fictionalized accounts of her grandmother’s life. Her latest work, Cowgirl Up! is a well-researched history of individual women’s impressive role in rodeo.

For more information about the author and her work, visit

Book Review: The Whistling Season


Every once in awhile a book of pure excellence comes along and, for me, Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season has reached that level.

In 1909 change was in store for the Milliron family. The story is told in the voice of a reminiscing Montana school supervisor when he was 13 years old, The oldest of three sons, Paul is a precocious child who takes his responsibilities seriously. His father counts on him, especially since the boys’ mother died the year before.

The family manages, but the house is usually in disarray. Besides keeping up his farm at Marias Coulee, Montana, the father works as a drayman for a diversion canal under construction, and is president of the local school board. Housework and cooking naturally aren’t at the top of chores that manage to get done. When the father sees a housekeeper’s work wanted ad in the newspaper, the family’s interest is piqued. It is puzzling though when they learn through the ad that the housekeeper, though well qualified, does not cook. Can’t all women cook?

When the new housekeeper Rose and her brother Morrie crash into the Millirons’ lives, immediate change transforms the household. Through a death, serious accident, a vengeful family and a puzzling mystery, every member of the family responds for the good of the whole. These are tough folks, people who must take life as it’s served to them. How they measure up to the challenges shows the caliber of grit it takes to survive the dryland Montana prairie.

The entire book takes place primarily between the Milliron’s modest farmhouse and the one-room schoolhouse that serves grades one through eight.

The Whistling Season unfolds with the flawless assurance of an acclaimed storyteller. The landscape and characters are vivid, as is the emotional depth of the novel. It’s a story guaranteed to pop into readers’ minds with gentle reminders of the book’s every-day situations. The Whistling Season is a masterpiece.

Book Review: The Boarding House

Marcia Melton’s The Boarding House (Raven Publishing) brings the early 1900’s to life. Although listed as a Young Adult novel, adults will also love this slice of Montana history.

When eleven year-old Emmie Hynes’ father dies in a mining accident, her world changes forever. In those days, mining companies didn’t take financial responsibility for families of injured or killed miners. The small family–her twelve year-old brother Conrad, her mother and Emmie–move from Butte to a small town across the mountains to Philipsburg, Montana to run a boarding house.

The family scrapes by. Conrad’s slacking off of chores comes to an abrupt halt when his scheme to earn money backfires. Both children support their widowed mother, still fragile from their father’s death. In addition to running the boarding house, Emmie’s mother works with mine officials for financial benefits for families of miners. In addition, Emmie’s mother also supports the growing suffrage movement and takes her children to rallies.

When the owner of the boarding house dies, it looks as though the little family will lose their new-found security. Although the children try to be helpful, there is no way they can close the looming financial gap that faces them. How will this family survive?

The author’s library and teaching experience serve her well. The Boarding House
is written with knowledge of the life and times of the era. The novel is a fun read, yet readers are reminded of many things we now take for granted, such as workers’ compensation and women’s right to vote. This excellent story was inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother and uncle. I recommend this novel for all ages.