Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. So begins Aryn Kyle's moving coming-of-age tale set on a horse farm in Desert Valley, Colorado; they are the words of Kyle's young protagonist, Alice Winston, in the summer after her sixth-grade year.

Before Nona packed four boxes and a backpack and headed off with Jerry the rodeo rider, Alice idolized her older sister. Nona helped soften the fact that their mother, mired for years in depression, spent her days and nights alone in her bedroom. More importantly, Nona's superior riding ability helped sustain their father's horse training business, which thrived due to her growing fame and show ribbons. When Nona leaves, the business suffers and their father is reduced to taking in boarder horses from a coterie of bored, wealthy housewives and driving a school bus part-time.

Kyle writes perceptively in Alice's voice, drawing the reader into the understated drama of this seminal summer in her life. Even at age 12, Alice is able to discern that her father's dreams of success in the dwindling world of horse shows are unrealistic. Perhaps it is this realization that leads her to create her own make-believe world first pretending that she was the best friend of her drowned classmate, Polly, and then assuming the role that Polly played in the life of their troubled teacher, including nightly phone calls that quickly become obsessive.

Kyle deftly captures Alice's growing awareness of the constant dilemmas challenging the adults in her life, as she watches both her sister's marriage and her father's livelihood slip away. Amid these human setbacks, the author paints an evocative portrait of the vast country in which her characters struggle. Raised in Colorado herself, Kyle knows well the territory of which she writes, from its mind-boggling beauty to the aftermath of drought and flooding. This captivating saga of a loving but dysfunctional family, melded with an ode to the harsh splendor of the West in the tradition of Kent Haruf's Plainsong, is surely the start of a promising career. Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.

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