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Cowboy Jess

Reviewed by Philip Reeve

I have to declare an interest here: Cowboy Jess is dedicated to my son Sam, and Geraldine McCaughrean is one of my all-time favourite authors (I doubt that I would have ever got around to writing my own novels at all if I hadn't read Fire's Astonishment and Vainglory).

She is best known for her magnificent children's novels, which include The White Darkness, A Little Lower Than The Angels, Plundering paradise, Stop The Train and, most recently, Pull Out All The Stops, and she also finds time to operate a secondary career as a re-teller of myths, legends and literary classics.

Cowboy Jess and its sequel, Cowboy Jess Saddles Up, fit neatly between these two strands.  Short books, aimed at a slightly younger age-group than the full length novels, and packed with what the children's book world calls 'boy appeal', they revisit the American west of Stop The Train in stories of almost mythic simplicity.  The Wild West backdrop is sketched in convincingly, and the landscapes are wonderful, but historical accuracy isn't an issue here: this is the legendary West of John Ford movies and schoolyard games of cowboys and injuns: Cowboy Jess himself might as well be Theseus, or King Arthur.  He is discovered on page one as a baby, curled up asleep in a coonskin hat between the wheel tracks where a wagon train has passed.  His upbringing by the kindly folks of a newly-founded frontier town is dealt with briskly in the first few pages, and pretty soon he's old enough  to sign on as a cowboy at the local ranch.  The problems which face him are quickly overcome by bravery, good nature and quick thinking, and in the course of the first book he captures a horse thief, saves the stage-coach from bandits and befriends a Lakota girl, Sweet Rain.

He also acquires a magnificent black horse named Destiny, who reminded me slightly of the old Champion, the Wonder Horse TV shows, which were still being repeated on Saturday mornings when I was Sam's age.  I can't remember much about them now except for the theme tune ("Champierrrnnnnnnnnn, the Wonder Horse...") and the fact that the excitement promised by the title sequence (all indians, stage-coaches and galloping horses) was never really delivered by the show itself.  The Cowboy Jess books avoid this pitfall with carefree ease; they are all indians, stagecoaches and galloping horses.   For older readers they may not have the same depth or scope of Geraldine McCaughrean's longer books, (and clearly aren't meant to) but they are still well worth reading, if only so that we can marvel at her nimble storytelling and the brilliance of her language (at one point, when dawn breaks after a night on the range, she describes a band of light appearing along the horizon 'as if the sky was lifting its hat to a lady').  For boys and girls who love adventure they are just about perfect.  Order them now and encourage a bit of half term/summer holiday reading.

Cowboy Jess and Cowboy Jess saddles Up are both published by Orion, RRP £4.99

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