________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 8 . . . . December 5, 2008

cover Longhorns and Outlaws.

Linda Aksomitis.
Regina, SK: Coteau Books, 2008.
185 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 978-1-55050-378-4.

Subject Headings:
Big Muddy Creek Region (Sask. and Mont.)-History-Juvenile literature.
Outlaws-Saskatchewan-History-Juvenile fiction.
Outlaws-Montana-History-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Allison McDonald.

**Ĺ /4


Lucasís heart thumped wildly. Images of faces from the Wanted posters flickered through his mind Ė who was here besides Kilpatrick?

A bee, stinger ready, circled a purple flower beside Lucas, buzzed a little more, then flew past his nose. He shuffled in the grass, moving out of its way. One of the outlaw horses neighed.

The boss turned, the brim of his black hat tipped down to shield his eyes from the sun. Lucas stopped breathing. The man was the Sundance Kid.

Lucas flattened himself even lower and clung to the ground, too scared to even shake. If the outlaws heard his movements in the grass, one of them might come to investigate, or worse yet, shoot, thinking it was another snake.

ďGet the horses.Ē

ďWhoís getting the dynamite?Ē asked another. Lucas didnít dare look up to see if he could identify the speaker. He guessed it was Kid Curry, though, since the posters all described him as good with dynamite.

ďWeíll take care of it in Malta. The boss will make sure it gets to the right place.Ē

Malta, Lucas knew, was not far from Culbertson, in Montana, on the Great Northern Express line. And Butch Cassidy was the boss. The gang was planning another train holdup!

In this latest offering from Prairiesí author Linda Aksomitis, readers are taken back to the days of the American Wild West where cowboys and outlaws are rampant. The main character, 12-year old Lucas Vogel, is haunted by the loss of his parents and little sister who were killed in the Galveston hurricane of 1900. The Vogel family, recent Dutch immigrants, were attempting to build a life in Texas as rice farmers when the hurricane destroyed their family and turned Lucasí life upside down. Lucas is staying with his best friend Adrien when his brother, Gil, comes to take him away. They set out towards Montana to find their cousin Henry to determine if Lucas can go live with him. Lucas is a perceptive young man, more interested in learning how to become a Pinkerton agent and chase outlaws than in cow-herding and cowboy work. It is much to his consternation, therefore, when Gil decides that, along the way, he and Lucas will gain employment as cowboys with the J BAR J company.

     Aksomitis establishes the archetype of the wide-eyed boy amid the vast, undiscovered American frontier by using vibrant descriptions of the landscape and animated supporting characters. The character of Gil provides a wonderful dynamic as the gruff and intolerant brother from whom Lucas predictably seeks approval. The authorís grasp of the Texas twang is dead-on and helps to transport the reader immediately into Lucasí world. Trying to balance historic events in a work of fiction, particularly one intended for children, can appear clumsy if not treated carefully. Aksomitis achieves this feat with the effortless weaving of truth and fiction, not delving too far into the realm of fact, allowing the story to unravel without having to substantiate on every point.

     The reader will empathize with Lucasí plight, stuck between boyhood and manhood while struggling to earn respect. He is forced to grow up and do a man's work before he knows he is capable. To make matters worse, Gil thinks that Lucasís plan to become a Pinkerton detective and hunt outlaws is utter nonsense. Lucas is thrown into the job as cowboy and gets himself a wild new horse by the name of Ebeneezer, whom he nicknames Eb. Lucas feels out of place with everyone and every part of his new job, but he makes fast friends with his horse, and together they embark on a great western adventure. Moving through the plains of Montana, Aksomitis steers Lucas through a series of challenges that show him, and the other cowboys, that he is capable of more than he thought possible. From swimming his horse across a river to working a cow-branding, Lucas is vigorously put to the test.

     One day Lucas confronts the ultimate challenge. While out on the range, he comes across a group of outlaws planning their next heistóand not just any outlaws, but the Butch Cassidy gang. Lucas lays low, gathering information like a Pinkerton detective so that he can report back to Gil and the other cowboys. Of course, when he does, they donít believe him, forcing him to take matters into his own hands. The J BAR J cowboys move north across the border into Canada. While there, the outlaws manage to steal the horses right from under the cowboys' noses, but more importantly, Eb is stolen. Lucas is determined to get him back, and although he is told to stay behind at camp, he stubbornly sets out to follow the trail laid out by the Canadian Mounties. After having most of the story take place in Texas and Montana, itís a nice touch for readers when Aksomitis brings the story over the border. Young Canadian readers will enjoy the added element of Canadian history at this juncture, such as that of the Canadian Mounted police, the tensions between U.S. and Canadian border authorities at the turn of the 20th century, and the Acadian exile.

     Lucas not only manages to find Eb, but all of the stolen horses, and even helps capture an outlaw. As with all true hero quests, Lucas not only saves the day but also faces his demons in the end. During a mud-slide, Lucas is trapped in a rainstorm that reminds him of the hurricane that killed his parents and sister. He is nearly paralyzed with fear, but rather than let the turbulent weather get the best of him again, he saves a calf and comes to terms with the deaths of those in his family.

     By Aksomitisís capturing an authentic atmosphere of what the Wild West might have been like, she appeals to the readerís sense of adventure. Her grasp of western idiomatic phrases and jargon is gainfully employed and also works to offset Lucasí Dutch heritage. However, this story starts out in fits and spurts, much like a newborn calf testing its legs. The authorís trying to establish a history, while also grounding the story in the present too quickly, results in a hesitant and unclear beginning. The dialogue is at times choppy and forced, but overall works with the distinct personalities. It isnít until Lucas discovers the band of outlaws that the action truly begins and the dialogue and personalities start to flow. Unfortunately this delay increases the risk of losing readersí attention along the way.

     Lucas Vogel is an endearing character who will resonate more likely with middle grade boys than girls, but he is definitely fun to follow. His orphan qualities, with the loss of his parents and differences from the other cowboys, set him apart and engage the reader to champion his eventual success. At times, Lucasís naive, almost whiny nature can grate, but it only works to highlight his eventual growth from a boy into a young man.

     It is worth the endeavor to reach the crux of the story in order to see Lucas triumph in the end. Despite murky beginnings, the author builds on a group of characters that are lively and fun. For those readers looking for adventure, mingled with some history, and a lighthearted message to persevere in the face of adversity, Longhorns and Outlaws will be a welcome treat.


Allison McDonald is a freelance editor and writer living in Richmond Hill, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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