Calamity Jane: Background information when reading Paradise Sky

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Paradise Sky

by Joe R. Lansdale

Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale X
Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 416 pages

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    Sep 2017, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
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Calamity Jane

This article relates to Paradise Sky

Print Review

Few figures encapsulate the myth-making impulse of The Wild West better than Calamity Jane, whose appearance in Joe Lansdale's Paradise Sky is just the latest in a century-long fascination with this shadowy woman on the fringes of western heroics.

According to Calamity Jane – whose real name was Martha Jane Cannary – she came from about as humble a beginning as can be imagined. Born in the prairie town of Princeton, Missouri in 1852 to poor parents (reputed to be petty criminals) she was the oldest of six children. By age 15, both her parents were dead. As the de-facto head of the family, Martha took her siblings by covered wagon to Wyoming Territory, where she found odd jobs (including a likely stint as prostitute) until getting work as a scout at Fort Russell, where she rode out in advance of troops and settlers, taking note of Indian encampments, watering holes, the best routes for wagon trains, and the availability of food sources on the plains or in the desert.

Calamity Jane Her rough childhood, in which she learned to shoot, trap, track, and ride, served her well. "I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age," she stated in an autobiographical pamphlet that was distributed to paying crowds when she made her living as a kind of side-show attraction at Wild West Shows. "Many times in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagon over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged horses were of no use…but as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage, we overcame all obstacles."

Her work as a scout in Indian territory brought her into the circles of such legendary figures as Wild Bill Hickok and General George Custer. She was also involved briefly with the Pony Express, transporting communiqués between army forts (including a legendary, though highly dubious, account of her swimming the Platte River and traveling 90 miles at full gallop to deliver critically important messages).

Few women at the time could boast of such acceptance – and notoriety – among those living along the frontier, and word of Calamity Jane's exploits quickly spread. Historians, however, are skeptical about many of her claims, and over the past few decades modern scholarship has suggested that Calamity Jane (who might even have given herself that nickname, rather than it being given to her by an army captain for her bravery in the face of calamity on the battlefield, as she suggested) played a very limited role as a scout – and might not even have seen any of the battles she later said she fought in. "She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight," stated an article in a 1904 Montana newspaper, the year after she died. "She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak that made her popular."

So great was her popularity that she continued to trade on it decades after her alleged heroism, appearing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a story-teller, where her appetite for liquor became as legendary as her exploits. In fact, historians suggest it was her heavy drinking that contributed to her death at the age of 51. Or possibly 53. Or maybe 56. Very little is certain about Calamity Jane. Was she secretly married to Wild Bill Hickok? Did she have any children? Was she illiterate, as the record seems to suggest – despite "authoring" an autobiography? Each of these questions – like so much of her life – remains hidden in the shadows of this outsized enigma. Facts and fabrications lie too closely tangled in the overgrowth of time to weed out the truth.

Yet the myth of the hard-charging, sharp-shooting, Indian-fighting frontierswoman endures, a singular figure in the history of the Old West whose truthfulness might have verged on the calamitous but whose legend remains undimmed.

Picture of Calamity Jane from Skepticism.org

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by James Broderick

This article relates to Paradise Sky. It first ran in the July 22, 2015 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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