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Dodge City by Jennifer Kassebaum of Flint Hills Books

THE LAST RANCHER by Dodge City native Robert Rebein

This is Jennifer Kassebaum, owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove Kansas, for the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Summer Book Club Reading List.

Like many readers, I get excited about a well-written family saga that has a strong sense of place and complicated characters – like THE COVENANT OF WATER by Abraham Verghese that I reviewed last summer for this program.

Every bit as good, as epic, as well-written, as THE COVENANT OF WATER which was an Oprah Book Club Pick is THE LAST RANCHER by Dodge City native Robert Rebein who teaches creative writing at the University of Indiana.

When I received an Advance Review Copy from Rebein’s publisher, Tracy Million Simmons of Meadowlark Press, I was intrigued by the title, the location (Dodge City) and the cover art. But I was not prepared for how the book would pull me in, how the story captured me from the first chapter and how, with the final 50 pages, I could not turn off the light on my nightstand until I finished. This book is a family saga that has well-developed characters, an identifiable story, believable dialogue, an ending that is worthy of an action movie, and has a realistic courtroom scene.

I feel like I have enhanced credibility to write this review because 34 years ago, I married a rancher. We have a cow-calf operation, but no wheat. (My husband says “we” have a cow-calf operation but it has been years since I helped sort cattle, insert ear tags, and otherwise “work” the cattle –so he gets all of the credit now.) I lived on the Kansas City Plaza for a year after I graduated from KU and before I started law school. And finally, I have a niece who lives in Dodge City. So, I know a little bit about ranching, Kansas City, the law, and “Dodge.”

But more importantly, so does Dodge City native Robert Rebein, who tells such a great story about the lives of the Wagner family after the family patriarch, Leroy “Bull” Wagner, needs his family to pull together – although he would never ask for such help. It is the family matriarch, Caroline Wagner, who makes the first phone call to Michael, the eldest surviving son who is a Kansas City attorney, who then calls his independent, feisty younger sister, Annie, who is a PhD candidate in a questionable relationship on the east coast. The youngest sibling, Jimmy, the black sheep of the family who has never left Dodge City, is not much help --except to add breadth and depth to the family history and to the story. Jimmy works at the Flying J, a local truck stop, washing trucks by hand. His ambition is saved for his side hustle, which gives the story some comical characters and dialogue – and a different sort of tension from that created by family dynamics.

Each of the characters in this story is well-developed and the dialogue is realistic. Bull Wagner could be any number of ranchers that I have met, a man of strong conviction, a strong work ethic, and yet his communication skills are of the “needs improvement” variety. Caroline Wagner, like most women, is a much more complicated woman than suggested by the moniker of “rancher’s wife.” And when the combine breaks down during wheat harvest, I could understand the urgency and frustration of Annie who is charged with getting the wheat in. I was delighted that Rebein wrote a story that gave the family’s only daughter that responsibility.

While Rebein gets the day-to-day life of a rancher-farmer exactly right, he also writes a fast-paced ending that is fun and spirited. THE LAST RANCHER is an epic family saga that will delight many High Plains Public Radio readers. It certainly is one of my favorite books of this summer.

I’m Jennifer Kassebaum for the HPPR Reader’s Book Club Summer Reading List.

Jennifer Kassebaum, owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove Kansas
Jennifer Kassebaum, owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove Kansas

Jennifer Kassebaum is the owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove. She met her husband Bill Kassebaum at KU’s School of Law and while she practiced law at both K-State and WSU, she took early retirement to help with the couple’s cow-calf operation at a ranch near Burdick, population 62. She shares a perspective with Thomas Jefferson who said, “I cannot live without books.” And based on that belief, she established Flinthills Books in the historic bank building in the rural community of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Jennifer invites all Radio Readers to visit the bookstore as well as neighbors Watts Coffee or the Riverbank Brewing Co. And, since nothing is better than a good book and a great cup of coffee, try the co-branded espresso-flavored gourmet chocolate bar produced in Emporia, Kansas. For more information, see www.flinthillsbooks.com.

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Jennifer Kassebaum is the owner of Flint Hills Books in Council Grove.