‘The Last Ride’ a novella by Don Winslow

The Last Ride was yet another strong novella from Don Winslow’s Broken collection.

As with The San Diego Zoo, it has a great opening line and like Crime 101 and Broken it delivers a powerful and surprising story that is filled with people who it’s easy to believe in. Two things set The Last Ride apart from the other novellas: it doesn’t involve any of the characters from DonWinslow’s novels and it confronts a political issue head-on.

Cal Strickland, the main character in The Last Ride is a Border Patrol Officer in Texas dealing with the consequences of the  “zero-tolerance” immigration policy introduced by the Trump administration in April 2018, under which adult undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border were criminally charged and jailed. The children of undocumented migrants could not be jailed and so more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and held in Border Stations.

Cal is based out of the Clint Border Station, outside El Paso, (which became notorious for holding hundreds of children in chain link fence cells with open toilets in the centre for months at a time.) but the story starts with him visiting the huge CBP Detention Centre in Ursula and making eye contact with a little girl behind the chain link fence.

I thought the opening lines were very powerful:

The first time he saw the child, she was in a cage. “Ain’t no other word for it”, Cal thought at the time.

You can call it what you want, a detention centre, a holding facility, a temporary shelter, but when you got a bunch of people penned up behind a chain link fence, it’s a cage. 

He thought about what his daddy said when Cal called his old man’s cancer his ‘health problem’. “Call it what it is,” Dale Strickland told his son, “Ain’t no point in calling it what it ain’t” 

So that was bone cancer and this was a damned cage.

He doesn’t know why that particular child caught his eye but he does know that he looked away and walked past her and ends up thinking;

“And how a man can walk past a crying child would be a good damned question. Except the answer was that there were so damned many, there was nothing else a man could do”

The whole story that follows is about Cal Strickland deciding what a man could do.

The thing I liked most about The Last Ride was that it was about who Cal was and what he felt compelled to do to be the man he knew he should be. This could very easily have been a political polemic, demonising the Border Patrol and setting up a story of one brave man seeing the light and choosing to overcome evil. It was a much more powerful story than that.

While Cal’s sister is an NPR-listening West Texas Liberal (which Cal thinks are so rare that they make unicorns seem like a dime a dozen), Cal himself voted for Trump, is ex-Army and works in Border Patrol because it’s a paying job in an economy where jobs are rare and because the ranch he grew up on barely makes enough money to support his sister. Cal is a quiet man who keeps himself to himself. He doesn’t listen much to the news much because it’s too depressing and the voice he hears most often in his head is his father’s.

So, Cal isn’t trying to destroy the system, or change it or even protest it. It’s just that, when the little girl he saw in Ursula turns up in Clint and no one claims her, Cal wants to do what he can to reunite her with her momma. He thinks it’s the right thing to do.

It turns out though, that it’s not an easy thing to do, which is partly why it hasn’t been done already. When Cal pushes, the administration pushes back and tells him to do his job and let them do theirs.

But Cal can’t let it go. He’s partly driven by his father’s voice in his head.

His daddy used to say that most people will do what’s right when it don’t cost much, but very few will do what’s right when it costs a lot and no one will do the right thing when it costs everything.

Cal eventually finds himself doing things that there’s no coming back from. What he does and how it works out gave me an exciting, emotionally taxing, action-packed, surprising and deeply sad read that I enjoyed tremendously.

Cal Strickland is a character who will stay with me for a long time.

I passed over the first line of the story when I first heard it because it meant nothing to me. It was “25:40”. It turns out that it’s a bible verse. Matthew 25:40 and was the reason why Cal receives some help from a Christian neighbour along the way. The neighbour quotes the English Standard Version: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” I have nothing to add to that.

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