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.