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Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend

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Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend
By James D. McLaird. (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 2005. Pg. xiii, 378. 48 B & W Photos, 7 Line Drawings, 3 Maps.) ISBN: 0-8061-3591-3.

Reviewed by Sheldon Ztvordokov - January 10, 2006

Who was Calamity Jane? Was she the kindhearted markswoman made famous by Doris Day? Or was she the hard drinking, buckskin wearing, unladylike daredevil of dime novel fame? Were any of these images that of the real Calamity Jane, or does the truth lay in yet another direction? In Calamity Jane - The Woman and the Legend, James D. McLaird has crafted an outstanding biography of Martha Canary, the woman upon whom the legend of Calamity Jane is based.

In this page-turning biography, McLaird pulls back the layers of legend that have been varnished upon Canary to reveal who Canary really was and how she became the sensational Calamity Jane. As history shows, the truth is often just as fascinating, and sometimes just as unbelievable as is fiction. As McLaird shows, Canary was many things, a camp follower, a prostitute, a heavy drinker, a laundress, dance hall girl, and a mother. She was, in fact, very human, and she had to struggle to make a life for herself and her children on the Western frontier, and while her life was interspersed with some mild adventures, for the most part, Martha Canary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane, led a very hard life.

Within the pages of this book, McLaird examines how Calamity Jane came to an icon of Western Lore and how Canary abetted in creating her own mythology. It is important to note, that Canary's fame did not begin with her appearance in the dime novel's. She had already acquired some degree of notoriety before the dime novelist added her to their repertoire of Western heroes. McLaird shows how she gained this notoriety, and how the dime novelist merely built upon what had already been established.

McLaird also details Canary's life in detail, from her birth until her untimely death at the age of 47. She died, and was buried, in Deadwood South Dakota in 1903. He also examines what historical documentation exists about her life, and what had to be extrapolated in writing this book. Perhaps most interesting of all, McLaird explores not only how the myth of Calamity Jane grew, but also its historical and cultural significance.

Separating the fact from the fiction is especially difficult when Calamity Jane is concerned. She is an icon of Western Lore, and so much of the mythology of her life is so ingrained in the American psyche that it can be difficult for many readers to reconcile the legend of Calamity Jane with McLaird's biography of Martha Canary. For starters, she never had a serious relationship with Wild Bill Hickok (although they are buried near to each other), she did not ride for the pony express, and she was not a crusader for justice. She was in fact as somewhat unconventional, hard working and hard drinking woman whose exploits just happened to have tickled the collective American imagination.

McLaird is a respected scholar who is Professor Emeritus of History at the Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. He has written on Calamity Jane for years, and Calamity Jane - The Woman and the Legend is the product of rigorous research. This text also includes numerous photos of Calamity Jane in her many guises - both personal images and promotional photographs. Expansive endnotes are included, as is an invaluable bibliography on Canary. This book will delight both academics and general readers who want to discover the real Calamity Jane.

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