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Dean has dealt with variations on the theme in nearly all of her books, from her young adult novel “Reaching for the Reins,” about a teenaged girl who must cope with the boy she loves being involved in a school shooting, to “Paw Prints in My Soul,” which explores her parents’ troubled marriage and divorce.
Like its predecessors, Lou Dean’s latest memoir, “On My Ass: Riding the Midlife Crisis Trail,” centers around struggle. But the story is not without redemption. The book chronicles the journey she and friend Jeanne Smith take across Colorado on Smith’s Arabian horse, Tut, and Lou Dean’s beloved donkey, Jesse James, in 2001. The trip becomes a way to promote nonviolence in schools and reach out to hurting children and adolescents who feel they have few outlets to express their pain.
(“On My Ass: Riding the Midlife Crisis Trail” will be available for purchase at an author book signing at Meeker Drug on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. The book is also available at www.highplainspress.com or by calling 1-800-552-7819.)
From the start, the journey is fraught with unforeseen challenges. Freak May storms dump feet of snow directly in the riders’ path. Mechanical trouble with a borrowed truck used for shelter and transport slows their progress. And a terrifying incident on a two-lane highway becomes a graphic reminder of the frailty and uncertainty of life.
The narrative focuses primarily on the 400-mile journey from Blue Mountain to Holyoke, Colo., but long miles in the saddle and geographical markers that trigger memories of Lou Dean’s Oklahoma childhood weave in threads of subplot. Circumstances on the trail also compel the author to confront her ambivalence toward an “All Knowing One” who, by the memoir’s end, she feels guarded and comforted by.
The book’s most poignant scenes happen in flashbacks of her absent, alcoholic mother; strict, overbearing father; and a teasing but devoted big brother, John Phillip, whom the author adored. Lou Dean’s memories of her beloved sibling’s eventual decline into alcoholism and despair intersect with the gnawing questions she can’t let go: Why has she undertaken this journey? What depth lies beneath the expressed desire to promote nonviolence and start a scholarship for hurting kids?
It takes most of the 31-day journey to come to an answer, with plenty of help along the way. Over and over, Lou Dean is reminded of her value to others — despite the heartbreak of her childhood, the stigma of failed marriages and the struggle to raise her son, Scott, in the midst of tragedy and denial. Redemption comes not only in the form of a Heavenly Father, whom she finds she can finally name. It also comes through people: in Jeanne, the best friend a cowgirl could hope for, and in the acquaintances, law enforcement officers and strangers-turned-friends Lou Dean and Smith meet while on the road.
And, as in so many of Lou Dean’s books, the ones who teach her the most about herself aren’t people at all. Jesse James and Tut, the ass and the horse, are the patient, enduring heroes of this memoir. They offer Smith and Lou Dean chances to learn lessons quietly, without remonstrance or reproach: I will love you unconditionally, I will continue on even though it’s difficult, you can hear me if you’ll just stop and listen.
It’s redemption of the best variety, the sort that can’t come except through the struggle. And what Lou Dean learns, finally, is something pure she has gained through the trials of her life, of faith and of this journey.
“‘How odd that if we reject what is painful, we find only more pain; but if we embrace what is within us — if we peer fearlessly into the shadows — we stumble upon the light,’” she says in the book’s final pages, quoting Elizabeth Lesser.
Lou Dean couldn’t have come by such truth any other way.