The vast majority of my large extended family lives in various parts of Texas, so over the past 25 years or so I have made many trips there. In fact, so far the only plane trips my children have ever taken have all been to Texas. (Note to self: must rectify that immediately.) But I originally read this book before anyone in my family had moved there, which meant that this single piece of writing directly established my inner vision of the Lone Star State: hot, dusty, wide-open spaces with huge ranches populated mostly by rattlesnakes and the occasional rodeo-riding human. Imagine my surprise when my cousins took me through a Whataburger drive-through in Houston, to the beach in Corpus Christi, and clubbing in Austin. (The hot and dusty part was generally accurate, though.) Where were the horseback-riding ranchers of few words but deep thoughts? Oh, for that, I’d have to reread this book. And unfortunately for you, I’m dragging you along with me like an ’80s road trip in the backseat with no iPads. You’re welcome!
We open with Toby at home on summer break, doing what she’s been longing to do all school year — ride on her beloved horse Max — but somehow still bored and restless. Next we see Jane at home in her mansion in Boston, equally bored and restless. We then cut to Andy waitressing at her parents’ restaurant in Chicago, too busy dealing with obnoxious customers to be bored, but missing Canby Hall all the same. Back in tiny Rio Verde, Texas, Mr. Houston is worried about Toby. He can tell she’s moping around and that the solitude of the ranch, which she’s always loved, is no longer quite enough for her. He suggests inviting her roommates to come see Texas. Toby is thrilled and rushes to call them. Andy is excited by the idea, but feels guilty about leaving home again when her parents are expecting her to be around for another month and a half. “So what’s two weeks?” Toby cajoles. Two weeks? Why on earth do they need to visit for so long? A three-day weekend would be plenty! This is especially egregious considering that these girls are teenagers in boarding school who already don’t see their families for most of the year and who just spent an extra month staying behind at school so they could make far less money than they would have elsewhere. As a parent, I would find the suggestion that my daughter leave again for so long, and for no good reason, rather hurtful. Also, ridiculous. But Andy’s parents, though sad about her taking off again, are actually sadder at the thought of the three Musketeers missing one of their trio (which I think we can all agree makes absolutely perfect sense), so they agree to the trip. Jane immediately agrees to the adventure with no angst whatsoever, and no mention is made of her family’s reaction, so we can assume they weren’t planning on hanging out with her over the summer anyway.
Sooner in the book than you’d expect, Toby and her dad are at the Lubbock airport picking up Jane and Andy. On their way home, they stop at a restaurant and eat chicken-fried steak and fried okra. This is how Jane and Andy know they’re really in Texas now. It takes several hours to get from the airport to Rio Verde, dimming Jane’s hopes for a few shopping runs into the city of Lubbock. Can someone from Boston really be excited about the shopping in Lubbock? Jane sees bushes out the window and asks what they are. Inexplicably, Mr. Houston tells her they’re marshmallow bushes, which she falls for, until Toby gently tells her they’re cotton bushes. I do not understand this exchange. Toby’s dad seems like a nice guy, and making fun of your teenaged guest does not seem like a super-polite welcome, but any time something happens in this book that doesn’t make sense, the explanation is usually TEXAS. Jane sees an outcropping of buildings that she assumes is the outskirts of Rio Verde, then realizes, as they blow by, that that was Rio Verde. This doesn’t bode well for the next two weeks. (TWO WEEKS!!!)
They finally reach the Houston homestead, a large white farmhouse whose lawn is “the only green for miles.” (See what I mean about their depiction of Texas?) Inside, Andy looks at the gun cabinet and asks, “Do you really shoot these?” Mr. Houston answers in the affirmative, because it “would never occur to him to keep a bunch of guns around just for show.” Thirty years ago you probably could own guns in America and still be a normal, non-extremist sort of person, but in the current political climate I think that’s no longer possible.
They get settled into Toby’s mom’s old attic sewing room, where the three of them will stay. You know, throughout this entire book, they never once mention seeing Toby’s own room. Perhaps it slipped their minds. They run downstairs for dinner, startling Mr. Houston with their noise, and they meet Abe, the Houstons’ foreman who helps cook and basically has always been a part of the family. After dinner, the girls clean up and get into a soap suds fight, prompting Mr. Houston to ask them to keep it down. These big-city girls are gonna take some getting used to.
The next morning Toby takes her roommates on a tour of the ranch in the family Jeep. They are both amazed at Toby’s ability to know where she is despite the absence of significant landmarks. Throughout the morning, Andy is super-interested and enthusiastic, while Jane is tired from getting up early, hates the heat, and doesn’t like being bounced around in the front seat. This will set the pattern for the next two weeks. (TWO WEEKS!!!) For someone who was supposedly raised to place a lot of importance on etiquette, Jane is a remarkably ill-mannered guest.
Back at the house, they look at old photo albums and laugh at a picture of a toddler Toby dressed up as Annie Oakley, but no mention is made of any pictures of her mother. Wouldn’t you be curious to see your best friend’s deceased parent? Instead, Jane laments what the Texas air is doing to her hair.
After lunch, they head to the ranch’s swimming hole. Toby fearlessly uses the rope swing to jump into the water and Andy follows suit, but the water’s too murky and too full of possible killer insects for Jane. She pretends her foot got cut by something as an excuse to sit on the ground in the heat while the other two have fun. Her thoughts: “She felt something crawling on her stomach and stifled another scream. It was a trickle of sweat. She wiped it away in disgust. This was an awful place. Why would anyone want to live here?”
It’s your first day being hosted by your friend’s family, Jane. Nice.
Finally she can’t bear the heat any longer and decides to take just a quick dip. Unfortunately, halfway in, she brushes against something that turns out to be a snake. Screaming, she runs out of the water and smack into a cowboy. This is our introduction to Beau Stockton, Toby’s arrogant, Texas-loving neighbour. He tells Jane not to be embarrassed, because “lots of women go weak in the knees around me,” and that little water snakes are indeed dangerous, because they cause heart attacks in cowardly Yankees. Toby comes out of the water and we get the following charming exchange:
“‘Whoowee, you sure have grown up and filled out some,’ he said looking her over, closely scrutinizing the one-piece swimsuit that set off her nicely curved figure.”
This. This is the kind of language we were fed as children, the kind of male behaviour we were told was normal, the kind of societal shaping to which we were made to conform. It is quite telling that, despite being a child whose parents always placed their value on my brain and not my looks, I still saw nothing wrong with this sentence. And now, as an educated adult, I see so clearly how disgusting it is that this boy “looks her over” and “closely scrutinizes” her figure, which we are told is pleasing. You have NO RIGHT, Beau Stockton. You have no right to examine her body, and it does not matter one iota how nice or not nice her figure is. That is irrelevant information. And these books were written by women! Is it any wonder we have centuries of damage to undo?
Rant over, for now. So Toby introduces her roommates to Beau, whose family is the Houstons’ closest neighbour. Jane can’t believe people really name their kids Beau in Texas. He bristles and says Jane couldn’t possibly understand the importance of family names, being a Yankee. That’s all Jane needs to go off on how her family arrived on the Mayflower and participated in the American Revolution and basically started the entire country, #nobiggie. As they part ways, Beau calls Toby by her full name, October, just to get under her skin. She in turn calls him “Beauregard.” Is that really the full form of Beau? Oh great, I’m Googling it now and it turns out that General P.G.T. Beauregard was the person who championed the use of the same Confederate flag that still dogs the outskirts of civil society today. Not linking to him, thank you very much.
The next morning Toby wakes them up at 5 AM to go out to the north pasture and see cattle with Abe. Jane says she can’t “handle another whole day in the wilderness right now” and tells the other two to go without her. What did you think this trip was going to be like, Jane? Tea parties at the Rio Verde Ritz-Carlton? Toby, Andy and Abe go to see the huge cows, and Andy, being a pleasant person and good guest, has fun.
Back at the house, Jane wakes up mid-morning to find the house empty. She is quickly bored. After wandering around the house aimlessly for a few hours, she moves her wandering outside. Suddenly she hears a thundering behind her, which turns out to be Beau Stockton riding up on his horse. They have a halfway normal conversation in which Beau actually appears to be semi-human. Turns out he’s going to be a senior in high school and is thinking about going to Texas Tech for college, or maybe all the way over to the other side of the world, which is Austin. He offers her a ride back, which she declines, and he cautions her to watch out for rattlesnakes, because “they’d just love to sink their teeth into those nice, firm calves of yours.”
I just hate this guy. Want me to pontificate on the qualities of your body, you turd?
Jane, naturally, changes her mind and he swings her up onto his horse. He brags that he’ll be riding at the rodeo the following week and that he’s even better at dancing. He tells her there’s going to be a big barn dance following the rodeo and that he might even ask her to dance, “providing you know how.” What a Romeo! It’s only after he drops her off that Jane remembers Cary. HER BOYFRIEND. Man, that rocker is so inconvenient.
That night the roommates are in their room talking, and Jane mentions that she ran into Beau. Toby tells her it’s kind of difficult to “run into” anyone around there, given that it’s a 30-minute ride between their ranches. Jane suggests that maybe he came by to see Toby, and Toby doubts this, given that the only reason Beau ever came by to see her growing up was when his brothers weren’t around and there was no one else he could irritate. Ha! Jane asks about this big dance Beau was talking about, and dance-lover Andy is immediately interested. They decide to go shopping for barn dance-appropriate outfits the next day.
The following morning, they find themselves in the cluttered Rio Verde general store. Toby leads them to the racks of clothing and asks what Jane thinks, to which Jane classily wrinkles her nose and says, “I think I’ll stay home.” Andy, of course, easily finds a pair of jeans and a yellow button-down shirt with roses that she likes, tries them on, and is happy with the outfit. Jane, on the other hand, literally makes faces at every item Toby holds up. She finally grabs some jeans and a shirt and tries them on, but of course has to be a Negative Nellie about the whole thing, thinking “She looked stupid. The jeans were too tight and flared out at the bottom to allow for boots.” I believe those are called … bootcut? When she comes out of the dressing room with her complaints, she hears a voice say, “I wouldn’t change a thing, Boston.” Up pops that jerk Beau again, like a bad penny! Toby gives her a different size shirt to try on, and Beau calls after her, “I like that one you have on,” to which Jane replies, “Why don’t you see if they have it in your size.” Love it. Jane, of course, doesn’t like this blouse either, and decides that nothing’s going to work so she’ll either wear something she already has or stay home. Great guest you are, Miss Upper Crust. Before they leave, the store owner mentions that Beau’s a crazy rodeo rider and is going to get his neck “broke” one of these days. Jane muses that one can always hope.
By Day 5 of their two-week trip (TWO WEEKS!!!) the girls are running out of things to do. Toby wishes she could think of more activities, and doesn’t understand why it’s so hard to keep them (read: Jane) entertained, as Toby has lived on the ranch all her life and always found plenty to do. She decides to take them to an old Native American (though they call it Indian, of course, despite the glaring absence of garam masala) battleground on the property to look for arrowheads. Andy finds a small one, and Jane’s interest is immediately piqued. As someone who grew up around historical markers in Boston, this is right up her alley. Eager to find a genuine arrowhead to show her family back home, she eventually finds something even better: a rare spearhead. For the first time this trip, Jane is excited and Toby is happy.
That night they have a campout, and Grumpy Jane is back. The smoke from the campfire keeps following her. They’re too far from the house. Toby’s ghost story is freaking her out. The cot is too uncomfortable. The next day, Jane, having hardly slept at all, is predictably exhausted. Toby suggests an early night, so they head up to their room, where Andy finds a scrapbook. In it is a photo of Toby’s first-grade class, and both Andy and Jane note the teacher’s uncanny resemblance to George Washington. Unfortunately for them, Mrs. McKee was Toby’s favourite teacher, so Toby must defend her honour. They get into a pillow fight, which ends with them knocking over a lamp with a crash. Mr. Houston throws open the door and asks what’s going on. Toby goes out to talk to him, and asks if he’s really that upset about them breaking such an old and ugly lamp. Her dad tells her that it’s actually a souvenir from his honeymoon with her mom. She feels terrible.
Her roommates feel the same, so after they clean up the mess, they want to do something to make it up to him. They decide to cook and serve a candlelit dinner the following evening.
The next morning Mr. Houston is out repairing fence posts and feeling bad about getting so upset. The girls drive out to meet him and tell him of their dinner plans, and he knows it’s their way of apologizing. They check out the house’s pantry to decide on a menu. The freezer holds ribs, so barbecued ribs it will be. Andy asks if they have any cookbooks, and Toby finds one, but it’s missing a significant number of relevant pages. Will this be a problem? No! Andy will just mimic what she’s seen her mom do. You know, this is a recurring theme with Andy. She always thinks she can do anything restaurant-related just because she’s watched her parents do it, like apply for a job running a 4-star restaurant at the age of 15. Also, remember when we were dependent on cookbooks? I always say that, as awful as the Internet can be, one of the most wonderful things it has given us is the ability to type in a random string of ingredients and come up with a recipe for dinner.
They head into Rio Verde to pick up supplies. The ingredients available are not quite what Andy is used to back in Chicago, but they make do with substitutes. (This will definitely end well.) Back at the house, Andy kneads dough for homemade bread and makes an apple pie. In her haste, she accidentally grabs chili powder instead of cinnamon and carefully mixes it in. I feel like that detail should have been saved for later instead of giving us readers the ending right away, but I guess that’s why no one ever asked ME to ghostwrite for this series. The pie bakes up beautifully. Once the bread is in the oven, Andy and Toby decide to try to glue the pieces of the broken lamp back together as a gift for Mr. Houston. The one thing, the only thing, that they ask Jane to do is watch the bread.
But Jane with her flea-like attention span gets hot, again, so she decides to meander outside in search of a breeze, and who should gallop up but that red-hot hunk of sexism, Beau. They engage in their usual Boston-Texas banter and Jane gets Beau to admit that he’s never been farther east than Dallas. What is it about some Texans that they feel superior when they’ve never actually seen anyplace else? They’re so engrossed in their nauseating flirtations that Andy and Toby, after semi-successfully gluing the lamp back together, eventually smell burning bread. They dash down to the kitchen to find that both loaves are completely charred and unsalvageable. They go looking for Jane, who they see in the distance walking with Beau. Homemade bread is scratched off the dinner menu. Amazingly, Jane is not scratched off the 407 occupant roster.
The Houstons’ oven is hotter than Andy’s family’s oven, so the barbecue sauce is scorched when she pulls the ribs out. Despairing, she wonders if anything will be edible. Jane and Toby try to comfort her by saying that everything will taste better than it looks, and that they’ve still got baked potatoes which are hard to mess up, and amazingly these sentiments don’t go over well. But they manage to calm Andy down and get their candlelight dinner on the table. Seeing everything arranged, Andy feels proud. This is the first complete meal she’s ever made without her family’s help. But … then people start eating.
The rib meat is too tough to chew. The barbecue sauce is too clumpy to spread. The middles of the baked potatoes are raw. Everyone takes second helpings of the green beans, which are the only item fit for consumption. When the camera-worthy pie is brought out, the still-hungry people at the table all ask for big pieces. But the final disaster strikes when they take their first bites and realize that it tastes like “a cross between apple pie and an enchilada.” Andy bursts into tears and runs out to the back porch.
Her roommates follow her and try to make her feel better, but she just wants to be alone. Back in the kitchen, Mr. Houston and Abe are making peanut butter sandwiches, and Toby and Jane join in. Once Andy has calmed down, she decides to go back inside to help clean up. But when she sees everyone laughing and eating PB&J, she bursts into fresh tears and runs off into the night.
It’s late that evening before anyone notices that Andy is nowhere to be found. After checking the house and the immediate yard, Mr. Houston and Abe decide to go out in the Jeep looking for her and tell Toby and Jane to stay back at the house — more to keep Jane safe than anything else. The girls are frightened for their friend, but Toby muses that it’s much better to have levelheaded Andy out there than Jane, and Jane herself thinks that if she was the one who was lost, they would find her body the next day, long dead from a heart attack.
Andy is indeed lost, near an outcropping of rocks that she thought would point her back to the house but which does not. She climbs to the top of the rocks, trying to find some light or sign of human life, but slips, falling to the ground and scraping her leg hard in the process. (Andy’s always injuring her leg, too!) Just then, she hears a coyote howl. Meanwhile, Mr. Houston and Abe have had no luck finding her and decide to turn back. Andy thinks she hears a motor, but it fades away.
Back at the house, the men tell the girls that it’s too dark and they’ll have to wait until morning to continue looking. Toby, horrified, says they can’t leave Andy outside all night. When Toby was thrown by Maxine into a snowdrift after her fight with Merry, she would have died if Randy hadn’t found her. Mr. Houston knows she’s right and goes to call the Stocktons to help with the search. The men go back out and Toby heads out on Max. Jane waits at the house, where lo and behold, Beau shows up again. That guy should just move in! He tells Jane that when he heard one of the visitors was lost, he was afraid it was her. Jane gets on his horse with him and they go off searching too.
Meanwhile, Andy is slapping at mosquitoes and nursing her throbbing leg when she hears a rattling. There’s a rattlesnake nearby, and she can’t see where it is.
The searchers come back to the house to grab something to eat. Jane starts to cry and Beau takes her into his arms. Toby’s only reaction is that she envies Jane for having someone to comfort her. If Toby has known Beau all her life, wouldn’t she also be annoyed and mystified that Jane was into him? Also, disgusted that Jane was cheating on her boyfriend? CARY SLADE, ANYONE REMEMBER HIM? Just me? OK then.
It’s 2 AM when Mr. Houston and Abe, out in the Jeep again, decide to turn around for the last time. At that moment Andy hears the motor and starts screaming for help. They drive towards the sound and finally spot her in the headlights. They also see the rattlesnake, sitting on a rock just above Andy’s head. Using a pistol they keep in the glove compartment, Toby’s dad shoots the snake, which drops to the ground, and Andy springs to safety.
Back at the house, Jane is sleeping against Beau’s shoulder when the rescue party returns. The girls have a joyful reunion. They present the repaired lamp to Toby’s dad, who laughs the way he did before Toby’s mom died. Everyone apologizes. Jane and Beau go out to the porch to talk, but things go sour when Beau says he’s not likely to ever visit Boston, because “once you’ve seen heaven, there’s no need to keep shopping around,” and Jane retorts that “heaven isn’t the place that’s hot 24 hours a day.” Ha! They part on bad terms.
The next morning, Andy and Jane watch Toby practice her barrel-riding for the rodeo, which is a week away. Andy asks Jane about Beau, and Jane says “Don’t remind me. He is the most obstinate, ill-mannered boy I have ever met.”
“He sounds just your type,” Andy responds.
While in the corral watching Toby, Jane starts to belatedly feel guilty, and decides she has to call Cary. They have a nice conversation which ends with Cary teasingly telling her not to fall in love with any cowboys while she’s in Texas. Jane fears that she already has. Seriously? In love? Beau Stockton is that appealing?
Apparently the girls do absolutely nothing for the entire second week of their visit, because the next chapter is the morning of the rodeo. They arrive at the grandstand and Andy and Jane get seats while Toby registers and the men get Max the horse ready. It is noted that the United States, Texas, and Confederate flags are all waving. A little racism never hurt anyone, I guess! The girls are swept up in the excitement of the event. During the opening ceremonies, Beau is the flagholder. Jane, which will surprise no one, has been looking for him all morning.
They’re on the edges of their seats during Toby’s event. She circles all the barrels and makes good time. No one else comes close to her time, but the last rider comes out faster and looks like she’ll beat Toby. However, at the last minute she knocks one of the barrels over. Therefore, as befits the laws of the universe, the event is won by a Canby Hall girl. The laws of the universe also allow for events to be won by the love interest of a Canby Hall girl, so Beau wins the calf roping. During his victory ride, he stops in front of Jane and mouths “You owe me a dance,” and Toby’s only reaction to this is to think of her own relationship with Neal and how opposites attract. CARY, PEOPLE!!!
Beau’s signature event, bull riding, is the last event of the rodeo. He comes out on his whirling, bucking bull and, surprisingly given the aforementioned laws of the universe, gets thrown off. Worse, though, is that the bull comes after Beau and catches him in the side, crumpling him to the ground. The rodeo clowns distract the bull and get it out of the ring, and cowboys help Beau to the first-aid trailer. Jane is distraught, knowing that she is leaving in two days and fearing that “she’d never hear that laugh again.” After the six whole days you’ve known and been irritated by him? Uh, OK.
For the dance that night, Andy wears the Western outfit she bought at the general store. Jane is halfhearted about her outfit, since Beau is hurt and there will be no one there to see her. She puts on an aqua sundress with spaghetti straps and clips an aqua bow in her hair. Oh, the eighties!
(I would like to point out that this is an actual item for actual sale in the present day, though it is admittedly described as “80s/90s vintage.”)
At the dance they eat Texas food and dance Texas dances. Jane is preoccupied with looking for Beau but doesn’t see him. Andy, being the dance fiend she is, pulls Abe onto the dance floor and Mr. Houston takes Toby. Just then, of course, a Texas drawl alerts us readers to the inevitable arrival of the apparently invincible Mr. Stockton. He wasn’t killed after all (more’s the pity). Jane owes him that dance, after all, so they join the others on the dance floor, and Jane isn’t worried that she doesn’t know how to do the Cotton-Eyed Joe, because being with Beau “left her floating,” so she’ll definitely be able to keep up. Excuse me while I become reacquainted with this morning’s breakfast. Jane is sure Beau must have promised dances to other girls, but to her delight they dance every dance together. Yeah, you know what Jane, it might be telling that none of the girls who actually know this guy want to hang out with him.
Finally, someone else thinks of Cary! Toby, on the sidelines, watches Beau and Jane together, and wonders about Cary. “What would he think of Jane’s Texas conquest? Well, that wasn’t her concern. Jane was finally having fun and that made Toby happy.” OH, OK THEN! If Jane has fun murdering people we’ll all just look the other way too, I guess. As long as our precious Jane is happy!
We also find out that Toby has known Beau since kindergarten (but haven’t they been lifelong neighbours?) when he said baseball was for boys and she beat him up. Ha! “Could that same obnoxious loudmouth have a romantic side to him she’d never seen?” Let me answer that one for you: NO. He doesn’t need one. Jane would fall in love with a good-looking refrigerator. I suppose we should be grateful that she’s still not as bad as her predecessor Dana. (It’s tough to pick one entry to link to as evidence of Dana’s boy-craziness. She was into a new guy in nearly every one of the Old Girls’ books.)
Beau and Jane go outside, where he tells her he told the bull to throw him in order to impress a certain girl from Boston. They kiss. It’s “as wonderful as Jane hoped it would be.” My lunch quickly follows my breakfast. Jane asks him if he could call her by her name, instead of “Boston.”
The next day the girls, Mr. Houston and Abe go to the swimming hole. Everyone plays water volleyball except Jane, who can’t bring herself to go back in that water. Beau, naturally, shows up. (Man, I wish he’d get lost. Can’t he take my hint?) They all have a fun day. After dinner, Beau says to Jane that he guesses he won’t see her again, since she probably has a boyfriend back home. Jane’s silence gives her away, as she thinks, “Had she ever felt like this with Cary?” Again, let me answer this for you: take a wild guess. Beau tells her that her guy should hold on tight, because if Beau ever makes it out to the East Coast, he plans to steal Jane away. He asks her to write him. (Ahh, the 1980s!) As they part, he finally calls her “Jane.”
And the next day Jane and Andy go home. To their parents, who presumably barely recognize them at this point.
- Can I just document how much of a pet peeve “I got bit” instead of “I was bitten” is? It’s almost as bad as “I should of done that.” Are people being raised by vicious, grammatically-disinclined wolves?
- The Houstons have their own gas station and their own Dumpster on their ranch. I’m almost tempted to move to Rio Verde.
Next up, the second of my two favourites of the series. Our Boston blueblood is turning sweet 16!