The Secret Life of Cowboys

Tom Groneberg

Published by Scribner, 2003
ISBN 10: 0743236106 / ISBN 13: 9780743236102
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"One of the stories I tell myself when I am trying to fall asleep is that I have tried. I've tagged along after myself in the pages of my own modern Western, and every few years is another chapter to the story. The myth of the cowboy. I chased a dream and it kicked me in the teeth. Yet I find myself falling for it again and again."

Across the rugged and beautiful landscape of the contemporary American West, Tom Groneberg paints an unsparing portrait of his flawed, funny, and sometimes triumphant efforts to become a cowboy. It is a classic tale: a young man, facing a future he doesn't want to claim, has an inspiration -- Go West.

Leaving behind his friends and family, Groneberg follows his heart and heads to a resort town in the Colorado Rockies, where he earns his spurs as a wrangler leading tourists on horseback. Like an old saddle blanket, the tale unfolds, revealing the clean threads of a new story. Groneberg moves to Montana, working for wages at a number of ranches before getting a chance to become the owner of a sprawling ranch, fifteen square miles of grass and sky.

In lean but passionate prose, Groneberg demystifies the image of cowboy as celluloid hero and introduces us to the tough and kindhearted men who teach him how to be a real cowboy, the woman who teaches him how to love, and their son, who teaches him how to be a man. The Secret Life of Cowboys is both a coming-of-age story as stunning as the land itself and a revealing look at America's last frontier.

Review: As a young suburbanite from Chicago, Tom Groneberg first falls in love with horses and the rural West during a stint as a guide on a Colorado dude ranch. In this affecting memoir, he traces his decade-long attempt to shrub all evidence of his strip-mall roots through a series of cowboy jobs--mending fences, baling hay, and disposing of dead calves while working as a cattle hand. Later, he tries to command nearly 10,000 acres of inhospitable land as a way-over-his-head owner of a cattle ranch in Miles City, a tiny eastern Montana town so cold in winter, Groneberg writes, that "the clear night freezes the stars in place."

In an ever more desperate need to prove himself to "real" cowboys and himself, Groneberg briefly attends rodeo school and insists on entering a bucking bronco competition, clutching on to his three seconds of saddled glory as if it were an Olympic trophy. What saves The Secret Life of Cowboys from cliché--big-town boy learns important life lessons from craggy Marlboro cowboys--is that the more "authentic" his life becomes, the more miserable he is. Eventually, he falls into a depression so deep that he seeks the help of a psychotherapist and anti-depressants.

After a particularly disastrous year, when an alarmingly high percentage of his cows remain "open"--free of calves--he and his ever-patient wife sell the ranch and Groneberg seems destined to a particularly humiliating brand of failure. Fortunately for him, he discovers a different kind of satisfaction leading a semi-nomadic life with more modest expectations and even simpler pleasures, which he captures in his beautifully spare prose. --Keith Moerer

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Title: The Secret Life of Cowboys
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: 2003
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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