by James D. McLaird, University of Oklahoma Press, 2005
Most biographies of well-known figures tend to fall into two categories: those that build their subject up, and those that tear them down. That makes it all the more refreshing to read a book like James D. McLaird’s Calamity Jane, which simply looks on in fascination as an unusual and tumultuous life unfolds.
McLaird spent several years chasing the story of Calamity Jane, and it shows. Calamity never stayed in one place long, but wherever she went, she usually did something worth mentioning in the newspapers. McLaird uses these reports as his primary source for information, a job that must have required scouring the archives of dozens of early boomtown papers in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. He also blends in remembrances from Calamity’s friends and contemporaries.
The only places where the book falls short are the rare moments when McLaird succumbs to the historian’s weakness for overstating his case. From time to time, he seems to feel under pressure to explain why it’s worthwhile to have a biography of Calamity Jane, since she didn’t do all the things attributed to her.
In defending himself, he first casts Calamity as a representative of the common female experience in the West, then makes her a symbol for the poor in the 19th century, and finally decides to frame his book as a case study in American mythmaking. All of these are somewhat true, but they undervalue the book’s interest as a straightforward biography.
McLaird deals with Calamity Jane’s legend throughout the book, aptly incorporating it into the story he’s already telling. Rather than just omitting accounts that are probably fictional, McLaird takes the time to sift through and evaluate them, adding extra depth to the book. One of the most interesting chapters is set two decades after Calamity’s death, and painstakingly details the forgery of her journal and letters. It’s an excellent example of the sheer craft involved in researching and writing this biography. And if it doesn’t convince you that McLaird knows what he’s doing, flip through the thirty-plus pages of detailed notes and bibliography. You’ll be impressed.
I’d say this is the “definitive” story of Calamity Jane, but McLaird never really manages to define her. I mean that as a compliment. He dutifully chronicles everything, even if doing so upends his own attempts at definition. Calamity emerges as complex, contradictory, and human. I wish more historical figures received the same treatment.