Review of Hardpan

January 17, 2022

Marilyn Skinner Lanier’s characters in her debut novel, Hardpan, are unforgettable, indomitable, vulnerable, and courageous. Her apt descriptions and keenly wrought characters reflect her deep ties to the land. We are swept into the Glover family’s lives like the wind across the hills of rural Wyoming, sharing triumphs and travails, adventures, and failures as Kurt Glover searches for his dream, a ranch of his own. Kurt and Jo, along with their children struggle against the relentless hard pan soil, family rivalries, and financial ruin, yet holding fast to each other. A remarkable, captivating read. 

Carolyn Patterson Sidd

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a novel by Marilyn Skinner Lanier

What happens when a young ranch family in 1950s rural Wyoming loses its moorings? When their young daughter is sent to live in southern California with wealthy relatives whom she barely knows, while her father struggles to reestablish himself as the family breadwinner by taking on jobs in central California that are foreign to his ranch upbringing?

A short film, “The Fence,” based on a chapter from the novel, won the Director’s Award at the UCLA Film Festival in 2008.

Published by Westerly Directions Press

Available now in hardcover, paperback, or e-book. Check your local bookstore or order now on Amazon

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Timmy the Tractor Trainee

Our eastern Oregon family ranch, 1948.
My four-year-old brother, Timmy, sitting with our dad on a John Deere Model A tractor. This scene inspired an early chapter in my second novel, Jo, a work-in-progress.

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Ready for the new year!

Marilyn Skinner Lanier, Author

Welcoming the new year with my favorite mocha. Some of the daily routines established during the Covid era are worth continuing! This, along with two hours of dedicated writing time on my second novel, Jo, form my creative foundation for 2021.

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Skinner Ranch House Restoration

Original Ranch House Built in the 1870s in Jordan Valley, Oregon

I have submitted this article to the Malheur Enterprise newspaper for their special history edition. It’s about the full restoration of my grandparents’ ranch house built in the 1870s in Jordan Valley, Oregon–a small town in the high desert along the Idaho border. This house is integral to the setting and family history in two of my novels, Hardpan and Jo (a work in progress!).

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Getting ready for 2020 Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference

I’m really looking forward to attending the MCWC again this year, set for July 30-August 1. I’ve signed up for a Novel workshop taught by author Gabe Habash. This workshop is especially serendipitous since I’m in the middle of writing my second novel, Jo.

Here’s my new logline for Jo: “After abandoning the failed Wyoming ranch in the late 1950s, a young mother’s dreams of landing upright in booming California get turned upside down instead.”

STYLING THE NOVEL NARRATIVE (excerpt from MCWC website for the 2020 conference–Gabe Habash’s workshop)

“When crafting prose, writers have a wildly broad spectrum of stylistic possibilities. But whether your style is straightforward or experimental, the prose must engage and surprise the reader on a narrative level. In this workshop with Gabe Habash, we will discuss how to make each participant’s own distinct style shine while simultaneously discussing how to integrate that style with the narrative, with the intention of making style and narrative complementary. We will also examine a few published short stories that showcase the twin prose engines of narrative and style.”

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“Crazed Cat” is 2nd place winner in nonfiction–2019 MCWC Writing Contest!

I’m still reveling about my short nonfiction piece, “Crazed Cat,” winning second place in the nonfiction category of the 2019 Mendocino Coast Writing Contest (MCWC).

I knew something good had happened when the e-mail message started with “Congratulations!” and indicated my piece was chosen as the second place winner from among 74 entries.

Illustration by Matt Silas

The final judge for nonfiction commented, “This piece displays an astute and vibrant sense of setting that enmeshes the reader in the author’s world. It is never less than compelling.” That review definitely made me smile!

Set in suburban Sacramento in the early 1960s, this short story weaves the fate of a rabid cat plying the neighborhood with a young girl’s first date with a star athlete from her high school. The young man finds himself unwittingly thrust into a family drama steeped in Wyoming ranch tradition.

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Coming up soon: MCWC!

I’m getting ready to participate in the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference which runs from August 1-4 this year. Here’s the link to this exciting conference:

I’ve submitted a 2,000 word piece for discussion in the Middle Grade/Young Adult workshop led by Mitali Perkins. This draft excerpt from The Clark Valley Chronicles: Timmy the Ranch Hand tells the tale of nine-year-old Timmy Glover as he talks tractor tales with his best buddy, Buster, and stands off a mountain lion after his tractor runs out of gas in the back forty (acres) of his family’s Wyoming cattle ranch in the 1950s. See the Synopsis and two short chapters below.


In 1950’s northwest Wyoming, nine-year-old Timmy Glover is his father’s most reliable ranch hand. He uses his smarts to figure out how things work as he explores beehives to extract honey, drives John Deere tractors in fields riddled with rattlesnakes and skunks, has a standoff with a mountain lion in a remote alfalfa field, and rafts the Clarks Fork river rapids with a neighbor girl on a raft he’s crafted from throwaway planks. Unfortunately, these adventures often lead Timmy and his friends into serious danger. 


Nine-year-old Timmy Glover relishes the chance to help his father on their Wyoming ranch in the summer months when school’s out. 

One of these days Timmy expects to add a few inches, maybe stand as tall as Buster, his best friend who’s two years older. But for now, he’s got to stack extra pillows on the driver’s seat of his dad’s pickup so he can see over the steering wheel. The tractor’s easier. No need for the extra padding. Timmy just hops onto the seat, turns the key, and takes off. 

When Buster shows up early one summer morning, Timmy can’t help bragging. “Have a look!”  Timmy flexes his arm. “I’ve added some muscles since school got out. My legs are stronger, too.” 

Buster stares down at Timmy’s sun-bronzed arms and stubby legs.

“Not bad,” he grunts. “How’d you do that?”

“I’ve been lifting hay bales and moving piles of old rebar out of the barn every day.”

“Well, you’ve got a ways to go before your dad’s gonna turn you loose in the fields on the Model 40.” Buster likes to remind Timmy that he’s got height and weight advantage over him, at least for a year or two. 

 “Nah,” Timmy shrugs. “I’ve been driving tractors since I was little.  My dad let me drive the Model A on our ranch in JV. Not many four-or-five-year old kids get their own tractor!”

Buster had heard about Jordan Valley, a town in Oregon where Timmy and his family used to live. “Bah,” he retorts.

“Hey, it’s true! It was an ancient machine with a manual clutch. After Dad put it into gear, I drove it standing up.”

“Geez. My dad would never let me do things like that!” Buster said.

“Yep. In winter, Dad used it to pull a hay wagon to feed the cows. He’d wrap a rope around the clutch and run the rope to the wagon.”

“How’d that work?” 

“After Dad pushed the clutch lever to put the tractor in gear, he’d hop onto the wagon and tossed the hay to the cows while I drove. The tractor moved real slow ’cause the throttle was fixed.” Buster rolled his eyes in disbelief, so Timmy persisted, “When I drove into a corner or other impossible place, Dad would pull the clutch with the rope, hop off the wagon, and head us in a new direction.” 

Buster made a “V” with his arms and grinned. “I surrender!” 

The two friends burst into laughter.


One hot July day, his father took off for the house, leaving Timmy to pat mud on the last dam they installed downstream that day. 

“Don’t forget. Dinner’s at six,” his dad hollered as he drove away. 

After shovel-testing the new dam to make sure it’s secure from flash floods, Timmy takes off on the Model 40 fast as it will go, which isn’t very fast when you’re crossing dry stubble and fording ditches here and there. 

Timmy suddenly pictures the dude ranch up Line Creek Canyon. He guesses the big-game hunting ranch is only a couple of miles away. His father took him there last fall on their first Wyoming hunting trip. Timmy looks toward the lodge up the dirt road ahead, and back toward the ranch house far behind him, trying to decide if he has time to get to the lodge and back home in time for dinner at six. He figures he can do it, but there’s no time to waste! 

Timmy presses hard on the gas and hightails it on the one-lane winding road through the foothills. Every time he hits tire ruts, freeze-dried hard from last winter’s blizzards, he bounces off the tractor seat. The ruts and the wind gusts striking his face don’t bother him much though, because he’s quivering from excitement.

At the entrance to the hunting lodge, Timmy pulls out his granddad’s pocket watch, the one his father gave him for Christmas last year as a keepsake. Five-thirty! How’d it get so late? No time to say hello to the ranch manager. He yanks the tractor around and heads home, his heart skipping a beat or two.  

Halfway across the field, the tractor sputters. “Oh no! Come on…Come on…it can’t be out of gas!” Timmy turns the key hard to the right, over and over, until the engine starts up again. Maybe it’s overheated! He’ll have to throttle down for the rest of the drive home. The tractor lurches forward, gasping for air, before the engine whirring stops. Timmy looks around. The tractor rests on stubble bordering the alfalfa field. No question about being out-of-gas this time. Timmy knows he’ll have to hoof it back home.

Timmy scoots forward on the tractor seat, peering across the fields toward the ranch house, searching for the shortest path home. He’s about ready to jump off the tractor when he notices alfalfa swaying back and forth in the late afternoon breeze. Something’s swishing side-to-side, shifting the alfalfa stalks in either direction. Must be a rattler! He’s used to seeing rattle snakes slithering through underbrush in the fields. But this time he can’t hear any rattles even though the engine’s turned off. 

The sinewy body of a cat at least as big as Timmy muscles his way through the floppy stand of alfalfa, his brown eyes staring directly at Timmy. It’s a mountain lion! The cat emits a low growl and his shoulders quiver, but he remains locked in place. 

Timmy stays still as a tree stub on the tractor seat, scared that the stalking cat could attack him. The mountain lion stares back, his moonbeam eyes unmoving. 

Timmy remembers his mom’s warning, “Keep your distance from mountain lions, honey. They can eat you for lunch if you don’t watch out!” 

It feels like forever before the mountain lion shuffles to its feet and disappears into the swaying stalks in the direction of the ranch house. 

Timmy stays on the tractor a while longer, his eyes peeled for the cat in case it decides to return. He glances at his pocket watch again. It’s almost six-thirty. Still no sign of the mountain lion. He’s got to make a run for it. He grabs the ball-peen hammer from the tractor tool kit, leaps to the ground, and starts running through the alfalfa as fast as his short legs will go. 

After crossing two fields and leaping an irrigation ditch, Timmy hears the rumbling of a pickup. Out-of-breath and winded, he spins around. It’s Pike, his dad’s most dependable hired man, hollering out the cab window. 

“Timmy! Hop in! We got concerned when you didn’t return with the tractor by dinner time.” Timmy jumped into the cab, still clutching the ball-peen hammer in one hand.

 Timmy gasped, “My tractor ran out of gas in the back forty!” 

“No kidding! And you decided to run home?”

Timmy nodded. But before he had a chance to answer, Pike noticed the ball-peen hammer. “Whatcha got there?”

Timmy glanced down at the hammer. “Oh, this?” he stammered, all-of-a-sudden embarrassed by how small it was.

“After my tractor ran out of gas, I noticed a mountain lion staring at me. Felt like forever before he finally disappeared into that field. I rummaged the tractor tool kit and found this hammer. I took it in case he came back for me.” 

“You know that hammer’s way too small to prevent a mountain lion attack, don’t you?”

“Yep. But that’s all there was in the tool kit!”

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“Second Chance” published in Spring 2019 Round Table Literary Journal

Pleased to announce my personal essay, “Second Chance,” is in the Spring 2019 Round Table Literary Journal! It recounts the journey of my mother who in 1965, at age 40 and after giving birth to her sixth child, quits her low-paying secretarial job to pursue her dream of getting a baccalaureate degree. It’s a tale of determination and grit in the face of daunting familial and economic challenges.

My personal essay, “Second Chance,” starts on page 84 of this newly published literary journal.
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Local Authors Book Expo in Healdsburg–April 27th

I’m excited to join other local authors in reading from our books at the Healdsburg Regional Library this Saturday, April 27th, 2-5 pm. Here’s the link to this special regional literary event:

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