Story Rating: 5 stars
Audio Rating: 5 stars
Narrator: Joel Leslie
Length: 5 hours, 7 minutes
Travis is arriving for a short a stay at Sutton Station to learn more about the differences in farming the unusual soil found in Australia’s Outback versus Texan land. Charlie Sutton, the young owner of the place, remembers well when they had other young men eager to learn arriving during the heat of summer, but it’s been a while since the last one—mostly due to the fact that his father has passed away and Charlie’s been rather busy running his spread. When Charlie meets Travis, he is surprised at the immediate feelings the American stirs up. Sure, it’s been a while—a long while since Charlie has hooked up with anyone– but there is something about Travis that sparks something deep inside Charlie’s gut that won’t be denied.
But Charlie’s sexuality is a secret, one that he fears will open him up to ridicule and the loss of employees. After all, the Outback is no place for “queers” as his father insisted on telling Charlie before he shipped him off to Sydney to “get is out of his system.” But Travis won’t be denied and, before long, the two of them begin an affair that is sure to end up hurting once Travis boards the plane to take him home. Until then, however, Charlie is all in as long as they keep it a secret—something that isn’t easy, but is vital. Once Travis agrees, the two men relax into boss and ranch hand by day and lovers at night.
N.R. Walker’s first book in her Red Dirt Heart series is a sweeping saga of love, a bird’s eye view of ranching in the Outback, and a gorgeous introduction to two young men who fall in love even though they are aware of the time limit on their relationship. Charlie and Travis sneak into your heart almost immediately. Charlie is the product of a homophobic and seemingly uncaring father and a mother who left when he was very young, unable to love the fierce and isolating land she married into. If it hadn’t been for George and his wife, who effectively cared for and helped raise Charlie, he would never have experienced the unconditional love that made him who he is.
Travis is just perfect for Charlie, mainly because he sees through the walls Charlie has placed around his heart and the fear he has that his father had been right all along about his sexuality. Travis is so good for Charlie, but that doesn’t mean Charlie isn’t scared, nor does it mean he will allow others to know about their relationship, such as it is. There is a time constraint on these two and their affections and, before long, Travis and Charlie will have a decision to make—Charlie will have to come out and Travis will hope that he asks him to remain in Australia. But before any of that can happen, the Outback will remind both of them just how dangerous a place it can be. This is their journey to that point and it is just beautiful.
The strength of this novel lies in how Charlie can finally come to terms with the damage his father had done to him. Not only did it make Charlie think he would have to live a solitary and lonely life in order to keep the respect he has from his employees, it also made him resigned to the idea that being gay is wrong and living his life as a gay man is not meant to be. Travis destroys all those beliefs just by helping Charlie realize how special he is and how worthy of love he has always been. That, mixed with the beautiful yet deadly landscape of the Outback, makes for a marvelous story that melts the hardest of hearts.
Joel Leslie is the narrator for this story and, honestly, I don’t think there could have been a better choice. One is hard pressed to find a narrator that has a fluidity to their pacing like Joel Leslie. His style is so smooth and though he has a distinct way of speaking, in this case it fits well with the story. I am in awe of his ability to switch between his Aussie and Texas accents—the drawl he uses for Travis is just perfect for the character. I have to admit, I was a bit anxious when it came to listening to the alternating dialogue portions between Charlie and Travis, but Leslie handles it like the pro he is and seamlessly switches between the two very different voices quite nicely.
As far as other characters go, from the slightly gruff and deeper tone for George; the high, girlish register for Ma; and the various station hands and neighbors, this narrator manages to give each one their own distinct sound. Through the vocal talents of Joel Leslie, this novel comes alive and the narration only adds to the appeal of this story. A job well done once again by this consummate professional.