Martha Jane Burke (“Calamity Jane”), on horseback in 1901. Photo: C. D. Arnold. Via United States Library of Congress
Another person is the best way to learn about a book. At least, it’s my favorite; good reviews are an art form, Web sites a modern marvel, but somehow my best-loved books have come directly from someone else’s recommendation, and the enthusiasm of those conversations is a pleasure in itself. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this particular chain of connection. When you think about it, most of the world’s great religions are based on book recommendation.
I recently learned about the book I want to recommend to you today via someone whom I met while reporting a story. He, in turn, had been recommended the title by a horse trainer on a film set. Where that guy heard of it, I can’t say, but the chain is doubtless long—dating back, at any rate, to 1976, when Shameless Hussy Press published Calamity Jane’s Letters to Her Daughter.
This book is allegedly formed of letters found after Martha Jane Cannary’s death. According to legend, the famed Wild West heroine taught herself to write in order to communicate with the daughter she’d given up for adoption, which explains the untutored spelling and grammar. But whether or not the book is genuine—many historians believe it unlikely—it’s wonderful: a historical document of the “Old West,” yes, but also a very moving story of motherhood and real struggle.
Calamity Jane was apparently known to be something of a fabulist—the brief autobiography she dictated in her lifetime is full of tall tales, and her professional storytelling was colorful—but even the known facts of her life were extraordinary. She was probably not involved in any Indian wars, and didn’t attack Wild Bill Hickok’s murderer with a cleaver. She may or may not have been a Pony Express driver, nurse, cook and saloon girl; she was probably a sometime prostitute; she was certainly a scout and a famed performer in Buffalo Bill’s traveling show, struggled with alcoholism, and died in her early fifties. Oh, and she also nursed smallpox patients in Deadwood and took the reins of a runaway stagecoach after the driver was shot. In other words, she lived hard, and she lived in a different America entirely. This book is a document of that, fiction or non, with all the ugliness and hate and adventure and change it implies. Calamity Jane herself wrote, “They are telling awful things about me. None of it is true.” At the end of the day, as she knew, it was all relative.
I loved it. I hope you will read it, and if you do, I hope you will pass it along to someone else.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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