Gwen Swan was a rodeo queen, sitting glamorously in the saddle as she waved to the crowds. She still rides, but its on the Swan family ranch that she works alongside her husband, Will, and his father, John. Ranch life twenty-five miles outside Laramie, Wyoming consists of an unrelenting cycle of struggling against the elements to bring the cattle through the harsh winters to market, earning enough money to sustain the operation for another year, punctuated by the relentless routine of preparing meals, performing chores, making trips into town for supplies, and raising the Swans’ two children, Rory and McKenna. Rory is a troubled little boy who bullies the other children and calls them names, fails to complete his homework and lies about it. Gwen dreads receiving yet another telephone call from Rory’s teacher because she will receive no support from her stalwart, but emotionally distant husband, while her father-in-law will make excuses for and coddle the boy. Will’s brother, Nick, left the ranch years ago and is now married with a couple of kids that John has never seen. Resentments weigh heavily between the two brothers.
Meg Braeburn is just looking for a fresh start when she takes a job as a ranch hand on the property adjacent to Swans’. Her husband of six years has been incarcerated and she needs a place to raise their son, Jim. She strikes a deal with Charles Mather, the alcoholic, cheapskate owner of the property, that will test the skills she learned growing up on a ranch in Colorado, the daughter of a veterinarian. Meg hasn’t seen or spoken to her family in years — not since she stormed off and got married, despite her parents’ disapproval. Pride and humiliation over the fact that they turned out to be right about her husband’s character prevent her from going home. She is determined to make it on her own and be a good mother to Jim.
As Gwen and Meg get to know each other, they forge a friendship born of commonality. Gwen understands all too well the isolation and loneliness that ranch life brings. She is happy for Rory and McKenna to find a new friend in Jim, and grateful to have a female neighbor in whom she can confide and find support. But as the ongoing challenges of ranch life bear down on all of them, that friendship will be severely tested. Will it ultimately crumble or remain unbroken?
Unbroken is one of those rare debut novels that catches readers completely off-guard. It seems like a straight-forward tale, imbued with details about its subject that could only be known by an author thoroughly familiar with his/her subject matter. The story twists and turns, keeping the reader captivated because of the intricately unstated manner in which the characters’ experiences are relayed. Those characters make a somewhat surprising play for readers’ hearts as their lives become more and more complicated, the result being that the book is increasingly impossible to put down. Unbroken is devoid of high drama or characters prone to histrionics. It is, rather, a novel populated by normal, everyday folk who get up in the morning and simply do the best they can under the circumstances presented to them. Unbroken is a truly remarkable achievement.
Author Jamie Lisa Forbes knows all about ranch life because she grew up on her own family’s ranch along the Little Laramie River in southeastern Wyoming. So she is intimately familiar with the struggles her characters face on a daily basis and that is apparent from the loving, nonjudgmental way that she portrays their hopes, dreams, disillusionment, bitterness, betrayals, and, most importantly, abiding love for two things: family and the land. Forbes gets who the people in Unbroken are and it is evident from the way that the novel is crafted that she wants her readers to come away from the experience of reading about those folks to understand them, as well. She succeeds — brilliantly.
Gwen Swan wonders what happened to her life as a beautiful rodeo queen as she prepares yet another meal that will be unappreciated by her demanding father-in-law, John, and the rest of her family. Her life has become an endless routine of cooking, cleaning, chores, tending to children . . . the years roll by in sameness alongside her steady, hard-working and still handsome husband, Will. She knows that Will would never leave the family ranch. He is determined to keep the land in the family, passing it on to the children some day, no matter how great a toll that decision takes on his family. Will is stoic and unable to deal with the emotional needs of his son, Rory, who acts out impulsively and is constantly be in trouble at school and without friends. Gwen is frustrated and troubled by her inability to convince Will to reach out more to Rory, convinced that Will’s tough love, that’s-the-way-my-father-raised-me approach will never serve Rory well. Ironically, the tough father Will knew has become more of a doting grandfather who babies Rory even as Will remains aloof and distant from him.
When Meg Braeburn takes on the job of ranch hand on the rundown Mather property adjacent to the Swan ranch, Gwen is grateful to have a new neighbor and welcomes Meg, embracing Jim. Gwen warns Meg repeatedly about the dangers of isolation out on a Wyoming ranch, but that’s precisely what Meg wants. She is trying to put the past behind her and focus on the hard work she has undertaken, as well as being the best mother she can to Jim. Meg is lonely and ashamed of how her marriage turned out, but determined to succeed on the Mather ranch no matter what obstacles she has to face.
The Swans’ lives become entwined with their new neighbors’ and other developments, including Nick’s return to the homestead, bring heartbreak and test the bonds of friendship. Will the commonalities that brought the two women together be their undoing or will they find that the relationship they have forged is, when all is said and done, unbroken? Finding the answer to that question makes for fascinating character studies and a deeply moving story. The challenge for Forbes will be to follow Unbroken with an equally compelling second novel. I hope she does, but I am eager to read more from this talented writer.