Once again celebrating Australian Women Writers, today’s review is focused on the Red Dirt Heart sequence from N.R. Walker. It comprises four m/m romance novels set on a massive cattle station in the Northern Territory (north-east of Alice Springs), and deals primarily with themes of ‘being gay in outback Australia’ and family.
I love this series, warts and all. It’s a marvellous depiction of what life on a cattle station might be like — the heat, the dust, the animals, the isolation. There’s plenty of horseriding, cattle droving, bore-fixing, akubras (hats) and RM Williams riding boots. And lots and lots of love — of various kinds.
Charlie Sutton is the 25 yo owner of Sutton Station, having inherited on the death of his father a few years earlier. He loves his station and excels at running it, but he doesn’t realise how lonely he is until Travis rocks up from Texas for a four-week stint of work experience.
The first three books are all told in Charlie’s engaging and very distinct voice, as he tries to find love and hold himself and everyone around him together. He’s an over-thinker and a worrier when it comes to relationships, and tends to bottle things up and convince himself the worst is going to happen. Travis, who is even-tempered, positive, and communicative, balances him out beautifully.
Red Dirt Heart (the first book) takes place over the four weeks of Travis’s original placement. Charlie knows right away he’s in trouble, and he has no idea how to handle it. But love for these two happens swiftly (once Charlie gets his act together) and powerfully. There are plenty of issues to work through, but the actions of both men speak volumes. It will come as no surprise to know that at the end Travis stays on in Australia.
Red Dirt Heart 2 picks up the crew at Sutton Station about six months later. There’s Charlie and Travis of course, but also Charlie’s substitute parents George (his foreman) and Ma (cook and general mother figure), and his various station hands. There’s also a pet baby kangaroo called Matilda. In this installment, Charlie still needs to deal with his inner angsting, much of which is derived from the fear of people outside the station finding out he’s gay. And then there’s the Australian immigration officials threatening to deport Travis for overstaying his temporary working visa… Overall it’s a worthy followup to the first, with Charlie learning how to verbalise his feelings and growing to accept himself.
In Red Dirt Heart 3, Charlie has to deal with a host of new issues — including a loved one’s illness, a family bombshell and an attention-demanding baby wombat… Not to mention he is running for the board of the beef farmers association, and trying to finish his degree by correspondence. And then Travis needs to go home to Texas for his own personal reasons, and Charlie isn’t sure how to do any of that without him. This installment once again puts Charlie and Travis through the ringer, and they emerge stronger than ever.
Despite all Charlie’s hapless attempts to tear him and Travis apart through these three books, they are the real forever deal, and I just want to hug them. Travis, always the steadying influence, tempers Charlie’s strong emotions, and his quiet unconditional support gives Charlie extra confidence to shine.
When it comes to Red Dirt Heart 4, I have mixed feelings. It’s told from Travis’s perspective, and although I adore Travis, this book just lacks narrative drive. It’s more a series of anecdotes with some dramatic moments, but ultimately there is no overall story arc. It’s interesting to see Charlie through Travis’s eyes, but it comes at a time when their relationship is solid as a rock. There’s little conflict between them, and thus ultimately no drama. Nor does Travis have any agency. He just floats along with his world revolving around Charlie.
BUT after reading (and hopefully loving) the first three, you kinda still have to read this one, because it does take them further in terms of their commitment to each other, and Travis takes Charlie home to meet his parents in Texas. You can’t just miss this. And then there’s the rather lengthy epilogue, which sketches in their life afterwards for years and years… And you can’t miss that either. After three books, my investment in Charlie and Travis was sufficient to pull me through the fourth.
I also mentioned family is a strong theme across all books. Travis is close to his large family, and has to deal with being far away. Charlie, on the other hand, starts off with serious issues surrounding his relationship with his dead father, which Travis helps him work through. Later, he is confronted with other family members hitherto absent, and finds happiness in forging new relationships. The books also explore the differences between blood relatives and the ‘family’ at Sutton Station.
There’s so much more I could mention: Charlie’s wonderful relationship with his horse Shelby, the antics of Nugget the baby wombat, banter on Australian v American colloquialisms, nights in a swag under the Australian night sky… but I guess I’d better stop.
Finally, I need to point out that these books (which are self-published) could have done with a good edit and proof-read. There are careless timing issues on occasion, which pulled me out on occasion. And there are numerous words either extraneous or missing. The prose is rather rough around the edges, but that’s Charlie’s voice and I can buy that. But an experienced nip and tuck would not have gone astray.
Nonetheless, I do love the emotion and heart infused in these books. And they feel really Australian — even if it’s not a part of Australia I’m very familiar with. But they make me want to go and visit our red centre again. And I’ve never been to a cattle station.