I grew up in Big Sky Country, eastern Montana where the deer and the antelope roam. My grandparents bought me my first horse, and I helped my dad with chores, rode with him to gather cattle for branding and shipping, and rode the prairie with my grandmother.
Grandma was a petite woman who, I learned early on, was more at home on the back of a horse than behind a dust mop. She loved animals and being outdoors, riding and working cattle.
She died when I was 12, and in going through photo albums she had put together, my dad pointed out a picture of a woman riding a steer, and said, “Your Grandma used to ride steers in rodeos, and she was friends with (World Champion bronc rider) Marie Gibson.”
Being young, I thought that was pretty cool, because it was enough for me to ride my gentle strawberry roan. But I had no aspirations to ride something that was going to buck me off. I was more bookish than cowgirl, having inherited a love of books and writing from my dad.
So I filed that tidbit of information away in my head as something interesting, something unique, maybe something to bring out at cocktail parties later.
I went on to receive my degree in journalism and write for newspapers and magazines. Much later, I took a class in writing for children and the instructor mentioned that biographies of women who were not necessarily famous but perhaps had unusual lives were welcomed by young readers. My steer-riding grandma popped into the front of my mind.
It was still much later before I actually began to think of putting her story down on paper. I toyed with the idea of writing it as a biography, but couldn’t get past the idea of writing about my “real” grandmother. What I tried writing was stilted and uninteresting. I couldn’t step back and be objective.
I wrote another book first—a novel based on my mother’s experience of emigrating from Germany after WWII. That showed me I could change the names, fill in the gaps and build interesting characters and plotlines that followed (but not exactly) my parents’ lives.
When I finished that novel and sent it out to collect rejections, I turned back to my grandmother’s story. I had grown up as a strong, independent woman who didn’t go “along with the crowd,” and I came to realized how much my mother and my grandmother shaped me.
Women who wanted to compete on rough stock in rodeos in the early 1900s were discouraged, derided, and often considered “loose” women. This was a dangerous sport; they were dressing like men and traveling around the country with men. This was a man’s world and women were not supposed to exert themselves physically. They were delicate, and their role was to take care of home and babies. But these cowgirls—many of them from Montana—had grown up working their ranches and farms and riding alongside their fathers, brothers and husbands. So when the men took a break from their daily chores to compete in a neighborhood rodeo, these women said, “Why can’t we do this too? We’re just as good as they are.”
And they did. My grandma never went on to ride in national rodeos or win national titles, but during the 1920s many women riders did.
In many ways they were ahead of their time, the foremothers of the “women’s liberation” movement of the 1970s. Through their courage, their skill, and their perseverance, they competed in a man’s sport and they excelled.
That tiny bit of family history spurred me on to write two published novels, and a third (all based on my grandmother), which should be released sometime this year, plus a non-fiction book about those bronc-ridin’, steer-ropin’ champion cowgirls of Montana.
Describing herself as “born with ink in her veins,” Heidi M. Thomas followed her dream of writing with a journalism degree from the University of Montana and later turned to her first love, fiction, to write her grandmother’s story.
Heidi’s first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, has won an EPIC Award and the USA Book News Best Book Finalist award.
Follow the Dream is the second book in the “Dare to Dream” series about strong, independent Montana Women and is a WILLA Literary Award winner. Her third novel, Dare to Dream will be released later this year. And a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! is under contract.
Heidi is a member of Women Writing the West, Western Writers of America, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Professional Writers of Prescott, and the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She is also a manuscript editor, and teaches memoir and fiction writing classes in north central Arizona.