Legends have drawn people to the American West since the first settlers ventured toward what was then unknown to whites. Stories of adventure and bountiful riches draw people westward to this day. Both modern heroes and historic legends abound in the subconscious of the western mind. There are a few names that come to mind: Jeremiah Johnson, Hugh Glass, Buffalo Bill and, of course, that wily woman, Calamity Jane.
Bryan Ney is not from Montana, but claims a healthy obsession with Montana history. His book, “Calamity Jane: How the West Began” is a piece of historical fiction that combines various true historic events and Ney's own imaginings to create an epic coming of age tale. Many authors and filmmakers have given time and attention to Calamity Jane's adult life, but her adolescent years have been mostly ignored. As explained in the prologue, much of Calamity Jane's narrative is based on a ghostwritten autobiographical pamphlet that Jane sold to support herself. This pamphlet is viewed as “an interesting mixture of fact and fiction.” It also mostly ignores her years in Montana during the gold rush. Ney admittedly continues this idea, taking liberties with historical fact and involving Calamity Jane in events that she likely did not experience first hand. Historians may take offense to this loose interpretation of historical events. This is a novel meant for lovers of western legend and lore, not historical purists.
“Calamity Jane” appeals to the senses of folks who enjoy the western dime store grit of Louis L'Amour and those who are drawn to a young female character that defies even current norms, pulling herself up by her bootstraps and her decidedly not-feminine britches. Ney's book allows the reader a fun, if not novel, interpretation of history.
The reader witnesses Jane's ascent from little girl suffering her parents misgivings (her father was a known alcoholic gambler and her mother delved into prostitution) to an independent young woman making her name in the wilds of the western frontier. Calamity Jane is surrounded by a motley cast of characters that include a Chinese merchant, Lo, and his wife, and gold crazed miners looking to strike it rich along with a small cast of other children that remind the reader of Jane's youth. A crime ring also works its way into the story, adding an element of mystery and suspense that would be lacking if the book focused on Calamity Jane alone. The outlaws are based on Henry Plummer and his gang, a group that is said to have wrangled and robbed during the prime of the Montana Gold Rush. The criminal element adds to the excitement in the novel, layering a feeling of fear and valor on top of the already interesting coming-of-age tale.
Ney's novel is a quick, enjoyable read that will appeal to readers young and old alike. It is not a book to be taken too seriously, it is a romp with a icon, a dalliance into the blend of myth and truth that define the American West.