Ney’s debut historical novel depicts the adventures of a teenage Calamity Jane.
The famous, titular scout, born Martha Jane Canary, was an iconic figure of the Wild West who spent much of her adult life adventuring across the frontier, dressed in men’s clothing, alongside acquaintances such as “Wild Bill” Hickok. Later, she published a self-aggrandizing memoir and appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, thus cementing her reputation for the ages. Jane is often portrayed in film and literature in her later, weathered years, but Ney has chosen to focus instead on Jane’s adolescence. After migrating west from Missouri to the Montana Territory during the Civil War, the Canary family has fallen on hard times; Jane’s father has become an alcoholic gambler, and her mother has turned to prostitution to help support the family. Jane—at 15, the family’s eldest child—is determined to do what she can to help her family and new community. Although she’s a crack shot, hunting rabbits isn’t enough to feed the family, so she dips her toes in endeavors as diverse as faro dealing and nursing. This coming-of-age tale wouldn’t be enough to support an entire novel, so Ney also introduces a crime plot inspired by the real-life case of Henry Plummer, who was said to have led of a gang of outlaws. Historical purists may be put off by Ney’s choice to centrally insert Jane into a situation in which she didn’t actually participate. However, fans of Western novels will enjoy the resultant narrative of road agents and justice. Ney’s frontier can occasionally feel a bit sanitized, and many secondary characters’ experiences—such as those of Lo, a Chinese merchant—would benefit from more nuanced depiction. Generally, though, Ney does a fine job of bringing the time and place alive. The details of life in the 1860s Montana mining town are rich, and the quick-moving tale is well-situated in the tradition of 20th-century frontier town novels, such as Jack Schaefer’s Shane. In one clever scene, Jane responds to her mother’s discussion of early 19th-century living with sarcasm, saying, “Musta been something, livin’ back then.” The irony, of course, is that Ney clearly believes it must have indeed been something living in Jane’s time; his enthusiasm for the old West and its literature comes through on every page.
A light, fun, and atavistic Western novel.