The Wrangler and the Orphan
The Wrangler and the Orphan is book four in Jackie North’s Farthingale Ranch series; I haven’t read any of the others, but although characters from the other books appear in it, this one stands alone. It’s a hurt/comfort age-gap romance in which the two leads bond over just how far their lives mirror each other and how much they have in common, but although I generally like age-gap romances, they can be difficult to pull off successfully, and I’m afraid this one didn’t work for me.
Brody Calhoun, wrangler at Farthingdale Ranch, is preparing to head back to the ranch after running some errands in town, when he sees a young man crawling out of a basement window in the Rusty Nail bar. Brody recognises the kid as one that his friend Clay had stopped being smacked around by the bar’s owner a while back, and it doesn’t take him long to work out that he must be running away. Brody can’t help seeing a younger version of himself in the scared, bleeding youngster, and signals him to get in to the truck. He’ll take him back to the ranch and… well, he doesn’t quite know what to do long-term, but for now, he’ll get him cleaned up and fed and figure it out from there.
Kit Foster is nineteen and has spent his life being neglected and abused by his dead-beat mother Katie and her endless string of boyfriends, so much so that it’s become the norm for him. Her latest boyfriend was Eddie Piggot, owner of the Rusty Nail, but now she’s skipped town after stealing five thousand dollars from him, leaving Kit behind. Needless to say, Eddie is furious, and takes out that fury on Kit, who, with no money and nowhere to go, has to stay put and take what’s dished out. Until an especially vicious beating prompts him to finally get away and he squeezes out the basement window.
Thanks to spending his own child-and-young-adulthood with the abusive Daddy Frank, Brody immediately recognises the signs of similar trauma in Kit. At seventeen, Brody was rescued by trail boss Quint McKay, who showed him care and kindness and taught him that there is good in the world; now Brody decides it’s time for him to pay it forward, and that he’ll do whatever it takes to help Kit.
The Wrangler and the Orphan is well written, with some lovely descriptive prose, a strong element of found-family, and well-realised moments of insight and emotion that tug at the heartstrings – but the romance is problematic. The age-gap isn’t the issue; I don’t think Brody’s age is stated, but I got the impression he’s late twenties – the trouble is that Kit reads so much younger than nineteen and for over half the book, Brody treats him more like a child than an adult. (He calls him “youngling” half the time, which Kit says he likes, but it made me uncomfortable.) As a result, their relationship is completely unbalanced; Kit is emotionally immature, he looks to Brody for just about everything and is still learning to think for himself by the time the novel ends. His feelings for Brody read more like hero worship than love, and I honestly couldn’t believe that someone so vulnerable and so traumatised, who finds it very hard to trust, would fall in love in just a matter of weeks – or that he was capable of that sort of emotional commitment. I had hoped the story would take place over a longer time-span, that maybe in the second half, we’d see Kit and Brody a few years on, with both of them having addressed their issues and ready to be in a healthy relationship, but that wasn’t the case. And Kit’s seeming so much younger, together with his vulnerability and naivéte meant that when things turned sexual in the second half, I was squicked out; his and Brody’s first sexual encounter takes place after hardly any build-up and in circumstances I found both bizarre and discomfiting.
Brody is nicely drawn; he’s quiet, thoughtful and insightful, and the patience borne of his lifelong experience with horses makes him perfectly poised to help Kit, who is often likened to a skittish, wounded animal. Kit is less well-defined though; he’s young and has experienced little outside of Katie’s neglect and abuse, so he’s something of a blank space. I did like watching him slowly learning to fit in and become part of the ranch community and his slowly growing confidence.
Brody’s past means he knows exactly what Kit has gone through and how he’s likely to react to certain things in the present, so he makes sure to avoid rocking the boat, and his behaviour and ability to remain on an even keel is admirable. But it’s clear that he’s never really dealt with his own trauma (has nobody at the ranch heard of therapy?!), his coping mechanisms are pretty unhealthy and he seems unwilling to attempt to find better ones or actually work through his issues. He helps Kit to deal with his trauma, but we’re never shown Brody telling Kit about what happened to him or making the attempt to deal with it, which is another thing that makes the novel feel unbalanced. The fact that neither Eddie nor Katie gets any sort of comeuppance also left me feeling dissatisfied.
I get the impression from the handful of reviews I’ve read that the other books in the Farthingdale Ranch series have worked better as romances and The Wrangler and the Orphan is something of an outlier. I’ve enjoyed other books by Jackie North, so while I can’t recommend this one, I’m chalking my disappointment up to experience and will try something else of hers in the not too distant future.