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The Marriage by Dallas Schulze
(Mira, $5.99, G) ISBN 1-5516-464-X
****
No matter how trite the cowboy theme has become, I can still be seduced by a well-told story about a rugged, laconic rodeo/range rider/ranch owner from any one of the Western states. What can I say? I love those guys and I love those ranch towns. If you're as susceptible as I am, you will find lots to fall for in Dallas Schulze's newest tale of love and family and their home on the range.

Ryan Lassiter and Maggie Drummond are characters who take a chance on each other in spite of tragedy and adversity in their pasts. Their story is simple, the action minimal, but their inner lives are lovingly portrayed and carefully grounded in the everyday life of Willow Flats, Wyoming.

Ryan is ready to settle down at last, having spent four years riding the rodeo circuit to forget his painfully short first marriage. Ryan's grandfather, Nathan Lassiter, wants him to marry and help run the ranch that has been in their family for four generations and he's not above a little coercion to see that it happens. When Ryan and a buddy give Maggie a lift into town after her car breaks down, a series of small-town encounters are set in motion that change everyone's plans.

Maggie is the caretaking member of a woefully dysfunctional little family group consisting of her pathetically incompetent mother and her predatory sister. They are relative newcomers to Willow Flats, having come to take advantage of a small inheritance that afforded them a rent-free, if somewhat ramshackle, place to live. Maggie's mother and sister are bored and unhappy in their new home, as they would be anywhere. Maggie and her sister each wait tables, but Maggie works at Bill's Place, the local family tavern and gathering place, while her sister Noreen works the bar and the men at the Dew Drop Inn.

Maggie could so easily have been a limp character. She has a hobby but no particular ambition and her loyalty to her mother and sister is foolish rather than admirable. It is a measure of Ms. Schulze's skill that Maggie comes across as warm and sensitive rather than clueless. Even more impressive, the story does not rely on the villainy of her family, but focuses instead on Maggie's struggle to deal with her own response to that family.

Ryan must overcome a family history of betrayal and tragedy in order to choose Maggie and the hope for a wholesome future that she represents. There are pitfalls in this story that the author negotiates with compassion. Ryan's willingness to marry a girl he lusts after but barely knows appears generous and hopeful, rather than shallow and calculating. Maggie's acquiescence is also portrayed as more courageous than the Cinderella story it might so easily have been.

In fact, the beginning of the relationship between these two very ordinary people is so well and lovingly described that it came as a huge disappointment to discover that there's very little of their time together that is covered by the story. Strangely enough, the marriage they enter into doesn't take place until two thirds of the way into the book, and their life as a couple doesn't really start until the end. I was left wanting in every sense of the word when their marriage remained unconsummated after the wedding. Although a story doesn't have to contain graphic sex to be successful, the dearth of occasions of sex in this one seemed odd especially since the characters are attracted to each other and are motivated to marry because of that.

In spite of a noticeable lack of sizzle, this is a lovely family story in a favorite setting populated with great small-town characters and a couple whose struggle for happiness is endearing in its simplicity. If you don't mind being carefully led to the brink of intimacy-and left there, I think you'll agree with me that it's a fine read.

--Bev Hill


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