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Alternative to heroic tales of western triumph

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In the Pantheon of the Wild West, there are plenty of gods, but there's really only one goddess: Calamity Jane. And even at that, she's a minor deity, a kind of sidekick, a drunken tomboy mooning over Wild Bill Hickok.

Calgary novelist and poet Natalee Caple, in her novel In Calamity's Wake, gives a voice both to Calamity -- a.k.a. Martha Canary -- and to others who are usually left on the margins of Western myths and legends.

And by offering these often-neglected perspectives -- many of which include horrific encounters with cholera, smallpox or yellow fever, and experiences of racism and marginalization -- Caple presents an alternative to heroic accounts of western triumph. The story takes place not just in Calamity's wake, but in the wake of calamity.

This poetic dreamscape of a novel intertwines the stories and legends of Calamity Jane and the gunfighters, madams and vaudeville entertainers who crossed her path with the quest of a fictional abandoned daughter, named Miette, travelling from the badlands of Alberta to Deadwood, S.D., to meet the western heroine.

Told, like many such stories, in alternating chapters, the novel follows Miette on her journey in 1903 and presents flashbacks to Calamity's life from her childhood in the U.S. Civil War through to her declining years as a featured attraction at Wild West shows.

Unlike many works inspired by western legends, such as Pete Dexter's 1986 novel Deadwood, or the HBO series of the same name, both of which featured pathetic Calamity Janes, Caple's novel isn't trying to create a single linear narrative out of the history and myth of the west.

Instead, Caple describes her novel as: "a work of metahistoriographic fiction," which pieces together rewritten accounts from newspapers, memoirs and an autobiography of Calamity Jane.

In transforming and embellishing these many accounts, Caple explores the nature of myth itself, suggesting how a mortal being can become immortal through the accumulation of legend.

Calamity Jane comes across both as fully human and as some kind of trickster goddess. In a chapter recounting Calamity's origins, Caple writes: "she was born three times, a farmer's child, a foundling, a bastard."

The novel is soaked in symbols and magical realism. As Miette travels an empty road, alone except for wolves and random encounters with a madman and a madwoman, past crows, empty villages and abandoned coffins of children, In Calamity's Wake feels at times like one of Cormac McCarthy's nightmare road novels.

It's also very much a poet's novel, in which the narrator's grief and hallucinations after a bullet wound lead to passages like this: "Measured the collapse of the universe. Measured the nut of fear in my chest. Measured the strength of my tear ducts. Measured the maps unopened, unread."

Finally, it's a post-modern work of fiction, one that invites the reader into the novel and shows how and why the novelist has constructed the work in just this fashion. Caple even provides a list of links to websites where readers can explore the texts she has drawn from.

At the end of this story of a daughter's search for her mother, Miette addresses her daughter -- named Imogen, which is also the name of the author's daughter -- and says: "One day I hope you will know how when you love a daughter it breaks the spine of history and folds time all around you."

The recent history of the 19th century is folded around Miette in this relatively brief, yet thematically dense, novel. And as a novelist in the Stampede City, publishing a western in the year of Idle No More, Caple is showing how that same history is folded around all of us.

Bob Armstrong, who grew up in Calgary, is a Winnipeg novelist and author of two "metahistoriographic" plays set in the West.

Book review

In Calamity's Wake

  • By Natalee Caple
  • HarperCollins, 296 pages, $20

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J7

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