Allison's Book Bag

Rancho San Felipe by Scott T. Barnes

Posted on: August 20, 2013

Rancho San Felipe by Scott Barnes is both an entertaining and educational picture book. It’s about eleven-year-old Victor who wants to become a real vaquero, otherwise known as a cowboy or herder. The Wieghorst Western Heritage Center, a publishing partner for the book, describes Rancho San Felipe as “an important contribution to our history and western heritage”.

As part of my interview with Barnes, I learned that illustrator Sarah Duque had originally shown Barnes a draft of a true tale of California from one hundred years ago. However, she had written it as a “slice of life” story: where this happens, then that happens, and then something else. Barnes rewrote Rancho San Felipe so that it had a beginning, middle and end. While I haven’t seen the original draft, I can tell you that Barnes’ version is charming and delightful. Victor is a likeable boy who wants nothing else than to become a real vaquero (the Mexican predecessor of the American cowboy) and to work on the fall cattle drive. To do that, he’ll need new boots, a new rope, and a tall horse. The latter is especially important to him. His father tells him to become a real vaquero, he needs to work hard. His mother tells him to become a real vaquero, he needs to help with the chores. And Victor does so without complaint, making him a likable and sympathetic hero. Over the summer, Victor receives roping lessons and befriends a donkey. He also faces some dangers, such as twice encountering a mountain lion and once a rattlesnake. There are other subplots too, such as a tooth tree, which add to the sweetness and humor. I thoroughly enjoyed this historical adventure tale.

California’s fourth-graders study the state’s history, and learn about missions and ranchos. Apparently, however, few tales from this period have been written down. Rancho San Felipe is based on a true story about one of California’s last ranchos. Through Victor’s story, one learns about the equipment needed by herdsman, how they develop their skills such as roping, typical duties such as checking on calves, and some of the dangers they face. Readers will also learn about far more than ranch life. Characters whom Victor interacts with include Spanish Americans, Native Americans from the Luiseño tribe, and Basque and Chinese immigrants. Then there’s the story’s background or landscape. During a train ride, Victor learns the origins of towns. At a friend’s house, Victor sees shelves of California Indian baskets. He also attends the Feast of San Antonio. That the book’s author is from California shows in every detail, lovingly woven into the story. The lavish illustrations depict native flora and fauna and are indexed at the back of the book. The back pages also include a description of brands used to mark cattle and a map of nearby ranchos.

The only thing the book is lacking is a glossary of new words. “Vaquero” is a new one for me and might be for other readers outside of California. While it’s meaning is implied throughout the story, a definition might be helpful to have at the end. The word “reata” is defined in the story as a “lasso,” but it and other unfamiliar words could also be included in a glossary. However, I should stress that Barnes does an excellent job of defining new words in the course of the story and so a glossary would simply be a bonus.

This is a somewhat shorter review than my normal ones. One can only wax so long about good books. 🙂 Rancho San Felipe features an endearing male protagonist, provides positives examples of how to live through the various characters, and is rich in its depiction of 1905 California. A big thanks to Scott Barnes for asking me to review it!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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