One of the most exciting things about the writer’s (or indeed any) journey is the people you meet along the way – those serendipitous encounters that touch you in fleeting or profound ways. Now when I meet an author, one of the first things I want to do is read their stories. What sort of storyteller are they? I don’t think Bull Rider is a book I would have naturally picked off a shelf if I hadn’t met the author, Suzanne Morgan Williams, at SCBWI LA this summer, and I would have missed a gem.
I cried at the beginning and I cried at the end, and I read the book in one sitting this weekend (even with a balmy fall day beckoning me from outside). For ages 10-14, though I believe this is a book that will be appreciated by many adults. Paradoxically this is a book full of teenage action (from skateboarding to the bull ring) and yet it is a book that makes you want to pause frequently and listen to the deeper message. It opens up the small-town world and the relationship of two Nevada brothers. Cam, the adolescent skateboarder, has always left the family bull-riding tradition to others braver or more foolish than he, and Ben, a marine, returns from Iraq, an amputee with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). I appreciate that this book does not make a comment on war, but it does a sincere job in honoring the sacrifice of both the soldiers and their families. This family is real, quirky, committed and believable. The emotional ride is varied, with Cam in particular facing internalized feelings of love, anger, annoyance and fear for his brother. Williams draws us to a place of real empathy for the entire family, but especially for Cam and his willingness to face the regional terror of the bull ring, Ugly, for the sake of his brother.
Williams is a gifted storyteller and weaves action and reflection with ease. The reader enters willingly the world of modern, rural, western US life. I, who know nothing of this sport, now have a gritty glimpse into those eight seconds on the beast’s back, worthy of a lifetime of community honor! One of the strengths of this story is also a really well fleshed-out cast of supporting actors (Grandma Jean is a riot), who point always to Cam and his central role, and yet add humor and depth to this family, being emotionally, relationally and financially challenged by war. Salt Lick is most definitely a community we feel part of for the duration of this story.
Williams also sows some touching, fantastical moments into the novel, that you will probably only recognize as you read the lovely, magical turn at the end. This is an authentic and poignant action story that is a great and easy read for boys (and girls). I imagine it is also a welcome addition to books that can be part of the healing for military families. I look forward to further novels from this author.