Once Upon Another Time by Pat Ballard

Pat Ballard’s multi-genre novel Once Upon Another Time begins in the 21st century. Candice visits the grave of her recently-deceased grandmother, the woman who raised her. As Candice heads for her car, wandering a bit aimlessly, she realizes something is wrong. The car is gone. A man riding a horse approaches her. Lucas, the cowboy, is worried Candice has hit her head or has heat stroke. She’s dressed weirdly. And what is a car? He takes Candice back to his ranch, which employs several cowboys and where Mamma Turner keeps house and cooks for the men and Lucas’s invalid grandmother. Candice doesn’t know how, but she’s time traveled to 1870s Texas.

I read that Candice is much like Pat Ballard’s other characters: a fat leading lady in a romance novel. Except I wouldn’t just call this “romance.” It’s also a western, one that mentions similar aspects that I’ve been reading in another western, The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout. I’m no connoisseur of the genre, but seeing parallels in the furniture, food, smells, and setting makes me think Ballard has written a believable western. Once Upon Another Time is also science fiction. It’s not just that Candice time travels once and there we are. There are others, hidden in the community who know more than they’re letting on, which gives the novel an element of surprise and a hint of mystery. So, if you’re into multi-genre novels, this one checks the boxes.

The start of the book could have used more polish. The first chapter relies heavily on canned grief speech as Candice cries over her grandma’s grave, and there was a part of me already wondering if I would quickly DNF. But the minute Candice meets Mamma Turner, I knew I was going to finish in a hurry. This strong matronly figure is kind and talented and has a hawk’s eye for details. She adds humor to the novel and livens up what might have turned into a straight goo-goo eye tale between Candice and her cowboy, Lucas.

Once Upon Another Time has two main conflicts: 1) does Candice reveal to Lucas she is from the 21st century or not, especially since they’re in love and talking marriage, and 2) the villain who is going to foreclose the ranch as soon as Lucas’s invalid granny kicks the bucket (this bad guy has some decency). Both were enough to keep me interested, though neither plot point was terribly complicated. Then Candice gets the idea to take Lucas with her back to the present time line, and I was more invested. What would he be like around not only cars, but cell phones, social media, and television?? Ballard keeps her cards close to her chest until she lays them down. I wasn’t sure what Candice would do and wanted to see all options played out, almost like a choose-your-own-adventure novel in which you go back and choose the second option after reading through the first.

I did feel Ballard’s treatment of Candice being a fat heroin was….a little bumpy. Candice had often cried to her grandmother that she wished she were born in the 1800s when “voluptuous” women were considered beautiful. I’ve always hated this notion that a woman can be fat, but only at the right time. Then, when Candice gets to the ranch, all the male ranch hands can’t keep their eyes off her, confirming Candice’s original wish. I guess I’m looking for fiction in which women aren’t turning to men for confirmation of their value. And for that reason, I wish Candice had more personality, or hobbies or acumen, to bring to the novel.

But, perhaps that’s not what Ballard was going for. As a straight forward romance/western/science fiction novel, the author hits all the right notes for an easy, enjoyable read when you don’t think too hard about it.

20 comments

  1. I don’t know how anyone who has time traveled back in time (in a novel) wouldn’t end up in a mental health facility! I would absolutely freak the eff out! But then there wouldn’t be much of a plot, I guess. 🙂

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    • Well, there is a scene in which one character freaks out, and I appreciated the way the author thought about how this character wouldn’t gel with the setting. There were things I hadn’t thought of (I’m being somewhat vague to avoid spoilers) that would need to be done to make the time traveler feel at ease.

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  2. This sounds very much like the Outlander series, with the main exception being that Outlander doesn’t involve any Western time periods / settings as far as I’ve recall (then again, it’s set in the mid 1700s and the characters start out in Scotland so maybe they just haven’t gotten there yet- it’s an ongoing series. The other genres and even the situation of stumbling mysteriously back in time seem spot on). Also, there’s no fat protagonist in Outlander, though it sounds like that was handled poorly here. Very much agree with you on wanting body positivity for women without the need for validation from men!

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      • Lol, that’s an interesting grouping! The Outlander TV adaptation is actually pretty recent (it maybe started in 2015 or 2016?), but the books began in the early 90’s and the film is loyal to the books so it does sort of feel like it belongs with 90s TV. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a pretty similar audience base there…

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  3. I love a well-executed multi-genre novel. There’s something about “WTF?” time travel that really speaks to me – it’s just so interesting watching the characters determine what to do. As you pointed out, do they keep things close to the chest? Sound like a crazy person? Just go make all the money because they know what to invest in? 😉

    That said, I don’t know if I’ll pick this book up. It doesn’t sound exceptionally well crafted. Interesting? Yes. But I’m also with you. Ugh – the older I get the more I roll my eyes when women feel the need to be validated by men. Or it’s a major plot point. Gross.

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    • I’m trying to think of another time travel book in which the person is transported randomly. Maybe The Princess of Mars by Burroughs, but I’m not sure he time travels so much as gets sent to a different planet. Plus, it’s very American Man meets Martians, which was common for the time but also a bit bleh for a contemporary reader. I Googled time travel books and saw Dooms Day Book by Connie Willis pops up, and that’s a book Lou @ Lou Lou Reads swears by.

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    • I would think going forward would always be harder! The future is what we imagine with some context, but the past is what we picture in our minds based on fact. I always think about how funny movies like Back the the Future II are in which they imagine what the future will be like — the hover boards and gizmos and lights…..but then it’s not so funny when it seems like the scriptwriter got it correct with famous Biff being such a Donald Trump type. 😐

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      • I think going forward would be harder too. Far more jarring. It’s so strange to think that the future of Back to the Future is now in the past! It is kind of depressing that the one thing they nailed is the corrupt businessman in power but I guess that’s a type that’s always existed.

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  4. I haven’t read many westerns but I absolutely loved Lonesome Dove and it’s one of my all-time favourite novels – because it was one of the first things I read in the genre, every time I pick up another one, I can’t help but unfairly compare it. That said, I like the premise of this enough (with the time travel and the multi-genre aspects) that I think I’ll be giving it a try.

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