A slapdash, repetitious but nonetheless compelling look at two phenoms of the late-19th-century, by Mr. Wild West himself.
McMurtry (Loop Group, 2004, etc.) knows his territory, and though he takes some time here working up a thesis separating Buffalo Bill Cody’s and Annie Oakley’s legends from the facts, the author of the Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove is ever fascinating and knowledgeable. He does not purport to give a biography of Cody, who grew up in “bleeding” Kansas and worked briefly as a Pony Express guide, Army scout and buffalo hunter before embarking on a 30-year show-biz career that ended with his death in 1917. But the facts of Cody’s romantic story keep pulling him in, especially the “tropes,” as McMurtry calls the legendary set pieces by which Cody defined himself. These included his first killing of an Indian when he was 11 and his scalping of Yellow Hair in 1876. Cody’s scouting for the Army allows McMurtry free reign on the subtleties of the Indian Wars, a subject he evidently relishes. Having distinguished the facts of Cody’s glamorous life (fodder for something like 1,700 dime novels), McMurtry moves into his work as a showman. By 1882, Cody had organized some of the first rodeos and hired Indians to help stage such dramatic mock-historical scenes as the attack on the Deadwood stage and battles between settlers and Indians. One of his most successful acts was sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a poor girl from Ohio who made an honorable living by her gun and was the first woman to be admitted to British shooting clubs. McMurtry explores Oakley’s own “creation myth,” involving the shooting of a squirrel on a fence with her father’s too-big rifle when she was a girl: “She always claimed that it was one of the better shots she ever made.” No spectacular or sexy revelations here, just a curious excursus into Cody’s successful performance for “Grandmother England” during the troupe’s 1887 tour for Victoria’s Jubilee.
All in all, earnestly winning, old-fashioned storytelling.