Flagstaff writer MacKenzie Chase reviewed Barbed: A Memoir in the Arizona Daily Sun newspaper on February 13, 2022. Through 5 p.m. February 14, Arizona Statehood Day, we’re accepting entries into the Barbed Book Giveaway. Fourteen winners will be drawn! Read more and enter the contest here.
Heart, horses, husbandry: Local author’s debut memoir explores what makes a life well lived
Shortly after accepting his marriage proposal, author Julie Morrison turned to her fiancé with a confession: “I am always going to need horses in my life,” she recounts in her memoir, “Barbed.”
“He exhaled, laughing. ‘God, I thought you were going to say something awful. Is that it?’
“‘That’s everything,’ I assured him. ‘Always. I mean it—always.’”
Morrison’s first book, published by Flagstaff-based Soulstice Publishing, begins with her and now-husband Brent picking up their entire life and relocating from Washington state to Arizona on a mission to bring her family’s ranch back from the brink. For him, the move promises an escape from the corporate doldrums. For her, some semblance of a life lived well, whatever that means.
“None of my favorite tales had clued me in to self-doubts that do not depart at any age,” she writes. “All the components were there–advanced college degrees, marriage, home, health–but try as I might to plot them into a hero’s journey, I woke up each day feeling more like a fool with errands.”
Perhaps more weighty errands will help her find meaning? When she and Brent arrive back in her Arizona hometown with their horses in tow, it’s to a ranch that’s struggling to make ends meet in the face of declining cattle sales and a shrinking staff. Morrison’s first foray into this unfamiliar world and work, which finds her setting out with her dad on two of the ranch’s workhorses over rocky terrain to herd cattle to a new pasture, shows her how difficult and physically demanding the job can be.
She employs humor as a coping mechanism: “Wanted: relentless riders of the range, content with barely better than beer money and bragging rights.”
Morrison is put through her paces by hostile cowboys, stubborn horses and life’s unpredictable twists and turns over the course of almost 300 pages, all while navigating her shifting marriage dynamics and attempting to simply feel at home among the turmoil of ranch life, so different from her experiences as a hobby show rider. Her poetic prose places readers right alongside her as we root for her and the friends she makes along the way.
A helpful glossary at the end of the book defines ranch terms for laypeople unfamiliar with what common words like string or poll refer to in this context (herds under the care of a single person or used for a single purpose, and the point on a horse between the ears, forming the first and topmost portion of the equine spinal column, respectively).
So many characters are introduced throughout the memoir that a guide in that respect may have been helpful as well, but the heart of the story is accessible even without such a resource.
Much like life, there aren’t always straightforward answers or clear resolutions in “Barbed,” but rather than being to the detriment of the memoir, the pages ring heavily nostalgic to those who have shared similar feelings of dead ends and being misplaced in the world. Morrison is able to sort through the rubble of unsuccessful enterprises to prioritize what is most important in her life, which, while unpredictable even during the best of times, will always include horses.