By: David E. Hilton
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: January 2012
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
Review Date: February 4, 2012
It isn’t often that a debut novel grabs readers with such intensity that they can’t put the book down until the last page has been read. But if you read Kings of Colorado (and I highly recommend that you do!), you’ll be up late at night, unable to stop. This is a gripping, haunting, suspenseful tale that pulls at the very heart of the reader.
William Sheppard, at 62, has just lost his job and is cleaning out his desk and such, when he sees the aftermath of a horse trailer vs. Land Rover accident. A white mare is trapped inside the flipped trailer and Sheppard comes to its aid as it lies dying. The horrific accident brings memories of Will’s childhood, a childhood he has tried to hide away in the back of his mind, flooding to the forefront. In an attempt to deal with the years he spent at Swope Ranch Boys’ Reformatory in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, he begins to write his story. Those words make up the bulk of Kings of Colorado.
Will Sheppard grew up in Chicago, in an abusive home, where his drunken father beat him and his mother on an almost daily basis. One day, after his father has broken his mother’s arm and is continuing his rampage, Will stabs him with his pocketknife. While his father lives, Sheppard is sentenced to two years at the reformatory.
Swope Reformatory is hidden deep in the mountains of Colorado, far from anything Will has known. It’s a working ranch, where mustangs are brought in, broke to saddle, and sold to local ranchers. Most of the boys are given simple, but physically demanding tasks, such as mucking stalls and mending fences. Only a few select boys are elevated to the rank of “breaker” – the title given to just a dozen or so boys who break the horses.
On Will’s first day, he’s subjected to a pounding by one of the other boys, a custom handed out to each newcomer. Badly beaten, he is taken to the infirmary, where he meets one of just a handful of friends, Miss Little, the reformatory’s nurse. Will soon has a small band of friends, Coop, Mickey, and Benny, and an enemy, Silas Green. With his friends he plays cards most nights, does chores and tries to stay away from Silas, a teen who has some serious behavior issues. The staff is, for the most part, brutal and uncaring and together with Silas, make Will’s life a living hell.
As the story continues, Will, without permission, takes on the task of training Reaper, a rogue mustang who he fears will be shot. At the same time, he does his best to avoid Silas, without much success. The tension continues to build and comes to a gripping conclusion deep in the mountains as the boys search for some runaway horses.
While it may sound cliché, Kings of Colorado is a story that grabs you from page one. The author masterfully draws the reader into the world of a group of teen boys, and their relationships with each other. The bonds the boys share, their struggles, and the innocence lost within the landscape of the reformatory school are mesmeric. Early on in the book Will tells the reader, “Horses came and went, delinquent boys came and went. The boys broke the horses, Swope Reformatory broke the boys,” (pg. 25), and within the pages of this story, we see just how innocence is lost as Will and his friends are slowly transformed. While sad, it is also quite touching and riveting.
Quill says: Suspenseful, absorbing and heart-wrenching, this was the best book I’ve read in a very long time. Don’t start this book in the evening, because if you do, you’ll be up all night reading!