Hardland: A Novel

Written by Ashley E. Sweeney
Review by Beth Kanell

Countering the notion that a Western is usually a genre book for relaxed reading, Hardland portrays the reality of working women in Arizona Territory in 1899 through the harsh, demanding life of Ruby Fortune: once a performer in a touring Wild West show, then an abused wife who takes drastic steps to save her own life and those of her children. When at last she’s running a roadside inn, Ruby finds affection with an outcast whose very presence in her home could get them both killed.

Sweeney’s stunning portrayal of this tough-minded woman, whose determination focuses on her boys but who’s forced to make terrible compromises in a society where a lone woman is an automatic target, is both compelling and memorable. Who’d guess that Ruby’s bold toughness comes directly from mothering?  “Children … even when they’re grown, a piece of yourself walks around outside of you, and you just can’t let go.”

At the book’s opening, Ruby challenges the reader to decide whether she’s bound for Heaven or Hell. By resisting all easy answers, the fast-paced and intense narrative makes such a judgment complex and risky—but also essential. Packed with details from boots to derringers to scorpions to crime and politics, Hardland also insists on loyalty, friendship, and the interdependence that settler life demanded then, and still does. Such a braid of values and courage counters the admittedly violent and harsh conditions shown, so that the novel reaches far beyond the classic Western genre, for a wide range of readers who value survival, honesty, and love.