Who was Calamity Jane? A liquor-loving wild woman? A dime-novel invention? The daughter she abandoned sets out to discover the truth in an impressionistic portrait of frontier days.
Forget Doris Day singing “The Deadwood Stage.” Canadian poet and novelist Caple’s (Mackerel Sky, 2004, etc.) patchwork depiction of the iconic female scout is darker and less definitive than Hollywood’s. Born Martha Canary, perhaps the child of poor farmers, or a madam, or maybe even raised by wolves, the mythic figure of Calamity Jane is surrounded by imprecision. All that young Miette knows is that Calamity Jane was the mother who abandoned her, and now, on the death of the kindly priest who raised her, Miette has obeyed his dying wish and begun a journey to find her. Martha’s and Miette’s chapters alternate in a dreamy, often melancholic tale of the American West, a place of stupendous beauty and abundance, now in the throes of profound change because of settlement, the Civil War and suppression of the Native American population. Miette’s harsh journey, threaded with visions, ghosts and glimpses of violence as well as rumors of her mother’s life and location, concludes with an implausible letter and a tender death scene.
Calling her novel a work of metahistoriographic fiction, Caple has concocted an atmospheric, sometimes-soaring, but increasingly uneven amalgam of research and lyrical prose. Only fitfully successful.