In Calamity's Wake - Natalee Caple

Miette has no desire to meet the mother who abandoned her, a woman she knows only as an infamous soldier, drinker, and exhibition shooter: Martha Canary, made notorious as Calamity Jane. But Miette's beloved adoptive father makes a deathbed request that the two be reunited: "You have to do it. Promise me you will not change your mind. I know that you've heard sickening things and those things are all true, but I'm sure she wants to know you." Set in the Badlands of the North American West in the late 1800s, In Calamity's Wake tells the story of Miette's quest across a landscape occupied by strangers, ghosts, and animals. On her journey she meets an old lover of her father's, a man who claims to be her brother, an imposter she thinks is her mother, Negro minstrel Lew Spencer, a kind madam who is her mother's best friend, a wolf who longs to protect her, and many others.

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According to author Natalee Caple, this story was inspired by a claim Calamity Jane herself is said to have made that she bore James Butler (aka "Wild Bill") Hickock a child (without his knowledge, I'm guessing, if the story is true) but shortly after the birth had given it up for adoption. So what might have become of this child? In Calamity's Wake theorizes on this. In Caple's story, Martha Canary's (aka "Calamity Jane") daughter is adopted by a man of the cloth, who nicknames the girl Miette (the girl's birth name is Martha, after her mother). Years later, when Miette's adoptive father is on his deathbed, he implores her to go and find her mother, get to know her, make peace with their past, etc. Knowing that her mother is the infamous sharpshooter Calamity Jane, Miette knows the stories around the woman and has no real personal interest in getting to know her. Still, to honor her father's request and memory, Miette decides to go on this journey to seek out her mother's whereabouts, hoping in the end to discover why Calamity Jane cut ties with her child all those years ago. 

 

The bulk of this quick read (223 pages, harback) is made up of Miette's travels through Badlands territory of the North American West, where she meets some definitely colorful, sometimes dangerous characters along the way. One claims to be her brother, one even claims to be Calamity herself but Miette is soon unconvinced by the woman's serious mental instability. Still, Miette suffers physical harm from some of these unsavory sorts but does eventually reach her destination, in a Family Circus sort of way. 

 

I really enjoyed the early chapters of this story, then it got a little problematic for me. {Reading the author's afterword and discovering that those early chapters were heavily inspired by Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo has me really curious to pick up that book now.} For some reason, I struggled to like Miette. It's not that she was whiney or selfish or anything like that, I just found her to be a boring, flat character. All her most interesting moments are because of the other person she's interacting with. If she were a real person, I don't know that I could chill with her very long, what with her way of crafting a 3 page poem on intense ear pain or talking to a boil on her foot like it's a traveling companion. Well... I guess, in a way it was... but still. The girl's quirks are a tough sell.

 

I also struggled with the way the novel was laid out in general. I feel like I would have enjoyed it a bit better if both Martha's and Miette's perspectives were done in alternating first person POV. Having Martha's in a distanced 3rd person telling was a bit too cold for me. Especially when there were glimpses of a pretty cool story there -- scrappy little Martha learning to fend for herself in the presence of negligent parents; slightly older Martha playing with wolves; Martha's bond with her brother, even while he's in prison. There is a bit near the end where Martha's story does switch to first person, but it's in a letter Martha has transcribed for Miette (as Martha was said to be largely illiterate). That letter was one of my favorite parts in the story and sort of confirmed for me that yeah, I think I would have enjoyed her story more in 1st person. I also liked learning that this letter's contents were largely based off of Calamity Jane's own autobiography pamphlet she had sold and printed for a little extra income near the end of her life. 

 

So all that being said, I think my main issue was just how the novel in general flowed. It was a pretty jerky read in that respect. I kept trying to figure out why it felt all over the place. Then there was the note on content at the back of the book: "A Note On Pastiche Sources: This novel is a work of metahistorical fiction." It's a what now? I wasn't familiar with this term. After sifting through pages and pages of websites hoping for an explanation, I am reminded of a quote I once saw attributed to Albert Einstein: If you can not successfully explain it to a child, you do not know your subject well enough. SO many pages of me reading and STILL being left with the inner thought of "Yeah, I get that but WTH DOES IT MEAN?!" So, this is the general idea I grasped after all that reading --

 

Metahistory is a concept originally coined back in the 1970s by a guy by the name of Hayden White, who wrote a nearly 500 page book on the topic that, as I see it, a lot of people like to reference but still don't completely understand. It seems that White liked to look at "the history of history", or the theories and philosophies behind how history develops. Metahistory also looks at the idea that history has a basis in storytelling. Before humans nailed down the whole "write it down for posterity" thing, we learned our histories through oral history -- friends and relatives sitting around a fire telling us about that one time when. Such history can be influenced by the storyteller's personal history or life struggles at the time, their choice of where to embellish or omit facts, economic or political conditions of the time, etc. White uses this idea to challenge the idea that history is concrete and factual. He instead says that there are other factors at hand that make our collective history more pliable / open for interpretation than traditional historians would have us believe. Metahistory, I gather, is meant to be used as a way to challenge or critique the way a certain time period or historical figure has been traditionally portrayed. 

 

So, thanks to the author on peaking my curiosity enough to further educate myself on that front. Also, I found the ending of In Calamity's Wake pretty touching. This little book had its good moments and I guess I would recommend it for a try out if it's a historical period that interests you. In the end though it wasn't my cup of tea so much. 

 

And yes, I kept picturing the Calamity Jane from HBO's Deadwood. Sorry, couldn't help it!