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After 30 years, novel in print - from The Explorer - The Voice of Marana
Book recalls ranch life, carries a message
By Mandy Roth, Explorer intern
For 20 years, the manuscript written by siblings Tom and Mary Walker sat in a desk drawer.

The 1,000-page novel, a tribute to their ranching childhood, became as desolate as the cowboy life it attempted to portray.

Now, 30 years after the project began, the Walkers have published "Contrary Creek."

Tom and Mary grew up on ranches in rural Arizona, roping cattle alongside their parents Ira and Bunny Walker. They lived in poverty, but didn't go hungry.

As children, they would sometimes ask their father why he didn't do something that paid more than cowboy work.

"He'd just shrug. 'It's all I know how to do,' he said. And truly, it was all he wanted to do," Tom and Mary say.

Their ranch was sold in 1961 and has not been active since.

Mary and Tom attended Arizona State University and went on to build their separate careers. Mary works as a social worker in Los Angeles and Tom worked for many years as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star.

But the memory of ranch life never faded. "Mary and I have always had a sense of loss for that way of life, we didn't want to be ranchers, but the sense of loss drove us to write a book," said Tom, a Northwest resident.

In 1981, the brother and sister duo sat down and wrote an outline for a fictional narrative, highlighting experiences and recapturing the simplicity of the ranching life they knew as young people.

For a year in the days before e-mail, the manuscript traveled between them, one writing a chapter, then sending it off for the other to "springboard" off of and add their own chapter.

"It should probably be noted that during that time, the nation experienced no increase in postage rates because the two of us were underwriting the United States Postal Service," Mary said.

The resulting novel was the product of Mary's and Tom's idea — nostalgia for a lost lifestyle.

"It was like a monster, about 1,000 pages long, completely un-publishable, and so it got stuck in our desk drawers for about 20 years," said Tom.

It was only after Mary began to write her own book several years ago that Tom decided to open the drawer and dust off the cobwebs of what is now "Contrary Creek," a 311-page mystery taking place in the 1960s in the fictional town of Faraway, Ariz.

"It kept gnawing on me," Tom said, who rewrote the novel from beginning to end after retiring from the Star. He still relied on input and ideas from Mary throughout the process.

"Contrary Creek" is the story of 16-year-old Danny Cloud, who lives on a ranch with his younger sister and parents. The book covers a year span in which Danny witnesses the odd events of nearby town Faraway, where the high school principal goes on a book-banning crusade, the science teacher announces herself as a witch and a mysterious series of deaths result in raised eyebrows from the population of 250.

Meanwhile, Danny gives insight to the ranching way of life and undergoes the rite-of-passage all must sometime encounter as youth. His lesson sparked when a different kind of witch-hunt of prejudices and intolerance unfurls in the town of Faraway.

"(The book) draws on our experience of growing up on a ranch, but the characters and most experiences are fiction. There's a shootout in the book, I've never been in one of those before," Tom said.

According to the book's website, the novel is about, "love, loss, and the power of hope," but according to Tom it's about "sex, violence, harsh language, and a terrific recipe for pinto bean sandwiches." The recipe is on page 115. Tom gives a word of caution that once you try it you can't go back.

There is an encompassing message, "which is timely right now," said Tom, "the danger of fear and intolerance and hatred, an awful combination of attitudes."

He finished "Contrary Creek" about a year ago, only to face a daunting truth for writers hoping to get published.

"A publishing company won't publish your book unless you have an agent, and an agent won't represent you unless you've been published," said Tom of the Catch 22 of the publishing world.

Tom decided to self-publish his work at Wheatmark, located in Tucson.

"This way I got to do the book the way I wanted," he said. The book was published on May 10.

The novel is offered through, and

"I'm not worried about how many books we sell, my goal was to get it written and published, it's not on my back anymore," he said.

"It's great to have it off my back," he said. "For 30 years it's been part of my life and I had basically given up on it because it was such a big project. It is every bit the book I wanted it to be."

Tom said he couldn't have done it alone. The book, like its writers, is founded on support from family.

"He says I inspire him," said Mary. "He can't imagine how much he inspires me."


Lisa Schnebly Heidinger -- It feels so real it shouldn't be called fiction

Posted 07/26/10:

While writing and reading about Arizona is my passion, this is the first time I've been moved to review a book. "Contrary Creek" is so expertly done that even though the authors were very clear up front that the place is made up, I kept finding myself thinking, "Maybe it's..." this place or that. It's that evocative, and that well done. The characters were so believable I kept thinking this was a thinly veiled autobiography, but both male and female were that well drawn. And the dust, the horses, the car seat springs, the experience of water, so real I felt I was in the other seat, or leaning against the fence, rather than reading. It was fun! Reading should take you away like that; make you think these are family members you just haven't seen in a while. Some of the characters are so small, or narrow, or dangerous, that I was surprised that I missed even them when the book was done. "Contrary Creek" goes so deep and is so entertaining that the temptation is to ask for a sequel. But it's probably exactly the right book to leave alone. While Disney might change the ending in a movie, I I think it was just about perfect. It's been a week since I finished it, and find myself still thinking about it. And that only happens about once a decade.


From the Arizona Daily Star --

You can read the review below or click on the link to the Star's page.

Click on the link or Copy and Paste the address into your internet browser window.


Bonnie Henry: Ranch tale has familiar roots

Bonnie Henry Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Monday, June 21, 2010 12:00 am

They grew up poor, roping and riding on ranches that have long ceased to exist.

Ah, but they still do in the fertile minds of brother and sister Tom and Mary Walker, authors of the just-published "Contrary Creek."

Though tagged as a novel, the book is really a tender tribute to the rhythms of ranch life that could only be written by those who lived it.

"It's a real beautiful way of life," says Tom, 68, who lives in Tucson and retired from the Star in 2000. "I miss the quiet. I miss the silence."

Mary, 64, who now lives in California, also aches for that life. "I had one letter from my father. He wrote, 'Don't ever forget you are an Arizona cowgirl.' I don't."

The make-believe Rafter C Ranch, where the fictional Cloud family lived in the early 1960s, is as remote as the ranches where the Walker "kids" grew up.

But much of the book's plot centers on the nearby town of Faraway - and a cast of characters too vivid to ever wear the pallid description of "colorful."

Then there's the general store. Excerpt: "You didn't shop in Fortner's Store; you explored it like some cave with many levels and passages. Legend had it that a twenty-dollar bill once was found in the pinto beans barrel. No one doubted the story."

Teller of this coming-of-age tale is 16-year-old Danny Cloud, who lives on the ranch with his younger sister, B.J., and their parents.

Within the span of one year, Danny will bear witness to a book-banning crusade, the arrival of a high school teacher who claims to be a witch, and a series of mysterious deaths.

He also will experience true love - and great loss.

The book, says Tom, partly grew out of the loss he and Mary felt after their parents, Ira and Alice "Bunny" Walker, died at the relatively young ages of 58 and 60.

"My parents were devoted to each other," says Mary. "They rode the open range together, camped out."

Ira Walker's dad, A.G. Walker, ranched first in the upper Aravaipa Canyon and later near Wickenburg. By the early 1930s, he was warden of the Arizona State Prison in Florence. But his son was always a cowboy.

The ranch where Tom and Mary began their lives was the JV Bar - 36 square miles of leased land north of Wickenburg.

Tom's early years were spent in a "barely wood" house that had a tin roof, cracks that let in the chilling winds, no electricity and no indoor plumbing.

"The JV Bar had a series of wells scattered around," says Tom. "My job from 12 on was to drive an old Jeep around to these places and start the pumps. We barely had enough water to keep cattle."

Mary, like her fictional counterpart, loved being a ranch hand. "I also broke the unofficial state record for barrel racing, I think in 1958," she says.

In 1957, Ira Walker sold the JV Bar and with a partner bought the Flying W Ranch, in Mogollon Rim country west of Young.

"We packed up everything, including the horses and dogs, and moved to Spring Creek," says Tom.

"I was unhappy to be leaving the ranch where I had grown up," says Mary. "I took a can of paint and in huge block letters on the side of the house, wrote, 'This house belongs to the Walkers.' "

The nearest school was in Young, 12 miles from the Flying W, down a rutted road that crossed a frequently flooded Spring Creek.

The four-room school served grades one through 12, with the 12 or so high school pupils shunted into one room.

When Tom's junior year was over, he, his mother and Mary moved to Globe, so he could finish his senior year there. "You could not go to a university from Young," he says.

During the weekends, the family returned to the ranch, where Ira still held forth. In 1962, he sold the Flying W and moved to Globe, where Bunny and Mary still lived while Mary finished high school.

"He became a night watchman at the Inspiration Mine. He was miserable," says Mary, who, like Tom, graduated from Arizona State University.

Their parents, says Tom, eventually moved back to Wickenburg, where Ira "leased a small chunk of land and ran 80 head of cattle." Ira died in 1970, Bunny eight years later.

"My last ranching chore was to round up the cattle and sell them after he died," says Tom.

In the early 1980s, he and Mary wrote a book similar to "Contrary Creek," which sat in a drawer for decades. Two years ago, they took a stab at rewriting it, changing the geography and point of view.

Neither the JV Bar nor the Flying W is now a working ranch, says Tom, who with Mary has revisited both, though not lately.

"One time when I was at the Flying W, I went in the backyard and dug up the irises my mother had grown and took them back to California," says Mary. "They're still growing. So I have a little bit of the Flying W with me."

More than a little bit, I'd say.


An Amazon review by Bryn Bailer - June 10, 2010

Crossing Contrary Creek

Cattle ranching is a tough way to make a living, and the hard-scrabble outskirts of tiny Faraway, Arizona is a tough place to come of age. But 16-year-old Danny Cloud is doing just that, and learning about life, love, big dreams, dashed hopes and small-town intolerance all along the way.
And when the school library is destroyed, an increasingly bizarre roster of teachers are summarily dispatched by the comically overwhelmed school board, and bodies start piling up around town ... things really get interesting.
Tom and Mary Walker's characters are finely drawn and memorable - and include a stunningly beautiful science teacher (a lesbian Wiccan who may be dabbling in the black arts and seducing the preacher's not-so-saintly wife on the side); a misunderstood English teacher named after not one, but three classic poets; and an impassionated teen champion barrel racer who yearns to run the family cattle ranch, even as that way of life crumbles before her eyes.
Along the way, Danny rediscovers the sweet and simple Mellie, who is maturing into a young woman in front of his wondering (and wandering) eyes. He aches to turn her from a gal pal into his full-on girlfriend - but hip-swinging Wanda, the teenage town tramp, has other ideas.
Delving into this mystery novel is - not unlike wading into the swollen, murky waters of Contrary Creek, near Danny's beloved Rafter C Ranch - an unforgettable adventure, and one fraught with both delight ... and danger.

An Amazon review by Vicki L. Thompson - June 1, 2010
Vibrant Coming of Age Story

In a narrative voice that is pitch-perfect, Tom and Mary Walker bring us the story of sixteen-year-old Danny Cloud, a small-town boy with big dreams. Yes, Danny's as angst-ridden and horny as most boys his age, but he faces his trials with pluck and an endearing sense of humor. Despite his fierce loyalty to his family, he has no desire to follow in his father's footsteps and take over the Rafter C, a ranch located in a remote canyon in the mountains of Arizona. His younger sister BJ, a feisty thirteen-year-old and champion barrel racer, vies for the job but has to buck her father's traditional mindset.
The Walkers pack this story with action and intrigue as the school year begins with a motley collection of teachers and a bigoted principal. But at bottom the book is about love. Danny's devoted to his family, but it's his newfound love for his childhood friend Mellie that drives the plot and leads to its inevitable and wrenching climax. The characters stayed with me long after I closed the book. I suspect I won't forget them anytime soon. Bravo, Tom and Mary.

from Copper Country News - April 28, 2010

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