Friday, January 20, 2017

Calamity Jane: How the West Began - Bryan Ney

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Martha Canary's family arrives in the goldfields of 1860's Montana in impoverished circumstances and despised for uncertain reasons. Soon though, Martha makes a name for herself as Calamity Jane through her exploits, wins friends and becomes the toast of the town. Murder and robbery stalk all who travel the surrounding trails, and Jane thinks she knows who is responsible. Can she and her new friends rally forces to clean the place up? (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Historical fiction is so much fun.  So are these newer fictional biographies I seem to be drawn toward. I have a special place in my heart for the Old West, and Calamity Jane is a figure that always intrigued me.  I wonder if it’s because so little is known about her origins, if it’s because she was such an exuberant figure of history, or because somewhere in my eight-year-old-self’s sick-day mind I watched Cat Ballou the same time I heard about Calamity Jane and haven’t ever been able to keep the two straight since. But despite my personal confusion between a pretty cute Western fictional heroine (anti-heroine? It’s pretty unclear.) and a real Western heroine (anti-heroine? Still not clear.), I like learning about them.

Bryan Ney has tackled a difficult subject in Calamity Jane with this novel, because there is so little known about who she was before she WAS Calamity Jane. Larger than life, even the well-documented truth seems hard to believe, and given the fact that she published an autobiographical pamphlet later in life that was widely regarded as mostly fictional, trying to decipher what she was with what she said she was is tricky. (Yet another reason she and Cat Ballou look so much alike in my mind.)  In a sense, this makes her early life ripe for a fictional biography, because there’s so little that is truly known.  However, I found myself balking at the larger-than-life tale that Ney has woven.

Elements of this story are all documented as having happened, although Ney has played with the timeline a bit in order to speed things along.  But the execution just didn’t ring true.  I’ve sat on this book for days trying to figure out what didn’t work for me, and I can’t come to any serious conclusions, other than it didn’t. It just didn’t.  

Perhaps it was the current writing style.  There was no lack of cursing, the insults thrown about so casually and so frequently were of the ickiest variety, and I found her overwhelming tomboyish-ness unbelievable to the extent it was portrayed.  

The older I get, the more I realize that some books are just not for everyone.  It could be the time in one’s life the book is read, the state of mind, even the weather that throws it off, but sometimes, books and people just aren’t meant to work together.  This one, sadly, just wasn’t for me.

Rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader: While this is a YA novel, there is enough cursing and references to whores that it made me uncomfortable.

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