The Brownest Person in the Room

Teaching the Cowboy by Holley TrentWhen I was revising Teaching the Cowboy before submitting back in 2012, I struggled with a few scenes. I worried they’d be offensive to people who don’t get my humor or who didn’t grow up in the sort of cultural climate that I did.

At its heart, Teaching the Cowboy is a fish out of water story, wherein the heroine, Ronnie, leaves her comfort zone behind for a new experience that may yield her a lucrative grant. She’s a North Carolina girl, raised in Fayetteville by a Lumbee mother and a black father.

I describe what she is because it’s important, not just to the plot, but to her as a human being. She’s not only proud and intelligent, but also extremely self-aware. She left North Carolina knowing she was in for a culture shock, and she sure as shit got one.

On the Wyoming ranches where she’s employed, she’s not only an outsider, but a brown one…the only one for miles and miles. The people around her don’t seem to react to this–at least outwardly–but that doesn’t stop her from having a heightened sense of exposure. In fact, her ethnic and religious dissimilarities from the Storafalt, Wyoming bunch became a bit of a running gag that starts in Chapter One.

When I was writing the first couple of drafts, I put those jokes in because I wanted to be outrageous. I wanted to make my mainstream readers a little bit uncomfortable, because if I had shortchanged Ronnie regarding her self-awareness, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself. It would have been unrealistic for her to not be thinking the things she does given her worldview.

…but after submitting, I thought, “Shit, what did I just do?”

I’m not an “issue” writer. I write ball-busting heroines and dish out snark as if it were after dinner mints. Dark humor and sarcasm are my hallmarks.

Well. Teaching the Cowboy is certainly snarky. It’s the book that I’ll probably get more than a few “Damn, she went there!” comments for.

That said, if I had to write over again, I wouldn’t strip out the observational comedy that are the heart and soul of the book. I’d leave in all the Baptist jokes (I should make a disclaimer that I modeled Ronnie’s mother after people I am very closely related to), and I’d leave in all the bits that make Ronnie uncomfortable.

Like this one:

She took a deep, steadying breath, and pushed open her door as a horde of blond-haired, blue-eyed Vikings in cowboy boots descended upon her car.

“Oh, shit,” Phil moaned. “Are we about to get lynched?”

She grinned broader and said through her clenched teeth, “Let’s just think happy thoughts, shall we? Mind over matter.”

“You mind your own matter. I’m staying in the car.”

She turned around and bared her teeth at her childhood friend. “What were you saying about big balls?”

He growled and yanked his door handle, muttering under his breath.

She closed her door, smoothed the wrinkles from her coral silk shell the best she could, and made sure her smile was big and broad. She’d won five pageants with that grin.

“Hi, I’m Veronica Silver.” She extended a hand for whomever to take. “You can call me Ronnie.”

The broadest of the male Vikings, a man of around forty with hair going slightly gray at the temples, and a bit of a paunch hanging over his belt, strode forward with a shit-eating grin on his face.


He clasped his two big, rough hands around hers. “How’re ya? I wish you would have let us fly you out. Must have been an awful borin’ drive. I’m Ted. This here’s my wife Becka.”

A woman, presumably Becka, hurried forward wiping her hands on a dishtowel. She gave Ronnie’s hand a vigorous shake and returned her overzealous grin with one of her own. Ronnie thought Becka’s, however, must have been her usual state given how crazed it was. She couldn’t blame her, considering the environment.

“I bet you’re exhausted. Have you eaten? Please tell me you haven’t eaten. I’ll be so upset if you have.” Her smile wilted.

Before Ronnie could answer, a young voice from the back of the congregation piped up, “Are you black?”

Yeah. So. Your eyes are probably like this right now–> O_O

Guess what? I’ve had kids ask me what that kid [Peter Lundstrom] asked Ronnie. Peter wasn’t asking from a malicious place, but from a unfiltered/ADHD/lack of impulse control sort of place (I have one of those kids). Of course, Ronnie has no way of knowing that, so the question made her arrival at her temporary home that much more uncomfortable.

As a humorist, I believe in keeping it real. What would you expect from the author who cast a white homeboy for comic relief in Bryan’s Betrayal?

Look for Teaching the Cowboy on February 7.