Calamity Jane: How the West Began

Written by Bryan Ney
Review by Richard Buxton

Jane Canary is fifteen. As the book begins, she has yet to collect the epithet of ‘Calamity’ by which history will come to know her. Living in a goldmining town in the foothills of the Rockies and with the Civil War raging back east, Jane strives to find her place in a family brought low by poverty and in a community that lives and dies on the prospect of gold. Jane doesn’t shy away from trouble; she comes to know more of the local bandits than is healthy for her, and the different powers at work are not immediately apparent to Jane. She needs to pick her friends carefully.

Ney has clearly done a great deal of loving research to produce this novel, and he has combined local outlaw histories with a vividly imagined early life for Calamity Jane. The joy of the book is seeing Jane’s uncompromising and bullish nature propel her toward notoriety even at this young age. Her character is very well evoked. There are many cleverly picked scenes in dead-beat saloons, at miner’s court or horseraces through the streets of the town, all of which give great depth to the period and allow Jane to grow into her newly given name. We feel on the very edge of the West, in an isolated and vulnerable community. The depiction of a mini gold rush and the resettlement that follows is particularly well done.

To some extent the wonderful historical representation comes at the expense of the plot, which is uncomplicated, and while the realities of the period are on show, Ney shies away from depicting these as harshly as he might. But a wealth of colorful characters is on show. Ney is to be congratulated for having so vividly imagined the early struggle and life of Calamity Jane.