Christie's Reviews > Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend

Calamity Jane by James D. McLaird
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's review
Jun 19, 2012

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bookshelves: 19th-century, history
Read from June 12 to 19, 2012

First Sentence: "'A complete and true biography of the life of Calamity Jane would make a large book, more interesting and blood-curdling than all the fictitious stories that have been written of her,' remarked the editor of the Livingston (Montana) Enterprise in 1887, 'but it would never find its way into a Sunday school library.'"

You may think you know about Calamity Jane: the hard-drinking, rough-riding, swearing army scout who had a feminine side that captured the heart of Wild Bill Hickok. Hardly has a western movie/tv show/book felt complete without a Calamity Jane character. The true story of Calamity Jane is a far cry from the legend. Martha Canary, aka "Calamity Jane," was all in likelihood an alcoholic camp follower and dance hall girl with a fondness for telling tall tales. She had relationships with many men, but never Wild Bill. It was not all bad though. She was well-known for her compassion for the sick and less fortunate. The newspapers followed her every move, much like the media does the reality stars of our day. She cashed in on her fame by selling photos and an autobiography with her "adventures." Sadly, she died penniless and alone.

Despite how depressing it sounds, the book was fascinating to me. It really gives the reader a glimpse into how legends and myths arise. The author has done his research to find out the truth behind the myth, while at the same time trying to give insight into how the myth arose. The book is well-written and you can tell it was a labor of love for the author. I enjoyed how many pictures this book had in it. Often you have biographies where there's maybe 8 pages of pictures, this one has 20+ full page photos. I like that.

I did have some problems with the book. First of all, the author seems to want to talk more about all the things Calamity Jane didn't do than about the things she did do. It was disappointing when I wanted to learn more about the woman and just end up learning about all the lies people told about her adventures. The text is also overwhelmed with quotes from primary sources with very little input from the author especially in the first few chapters. I appreciate that the book is well-researched, but I would like the author's own words and viewpoints to come through.

The book is still pretty good. I knew very little about Calamity Jane before reading this book other than the few fictional representations of her in movies and a few snippets in books such as Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women. I learned so much about this fascinating character and her equally fascinating legend.

Genre Bingo: Western
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06/15/2012 page 93
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