Kit’s Crit: Dodge City (Tom Clavin)

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson. and the Wickedest Town In the American West

(Tom Clavin)

Although Dodge City  has the Author’s Note, Illustrations, Bibliography, and Index of a non-fiction book, the tone and lack of scholarly footnotes makes the book appear more like one of the hybrid non-fiction/fiction books recently made popular by writers such as Erik Larson.  It is an account of how the Earp and Masterson families brought frontier justice to the “wickedest town in the American west” during the late Nineteenth Century.

A lot of interesting facts come to light throughout the tale.  Parts of the book are particularly entertaining and will undoubtedly appeal to the western reader, though scholars may argue the accuracy of some minor details.  The latter half of the book is the most engaging.

But whereas writers like Larson manage to effortlessly weave their history within a narrative setting, Clavin’s work is clunky and too reliant on a journalistic approach, darting around from person to person, following after minor characters, with no consistent timeline, story, or authorial voice to join things together.  In Chapter Ten, Clavin adopts a casual tone:  “After all that Bat had been through on many a hoof-beaten trail, this town probably seemed like a good place to slap the dust off his clothes, wet his whistle, and enjoy the company of good gamblers and not-so-good women (118).”  Yet three chapters later a more academic voice explains, “In May 1877, The Kansas City Times sent one of its reporters the 335 miles west to give readers a glimpse of the young city on the edge of the frontier that the people in the east were hearing more and more about.  He stepped off the train at 8.30 A.M., ‘in the tranquil stillness of the morning.  In this respect Dodge is peculiar.  She awakens from her slumbers about eleven A.M., takes her sugar and lemon at twelve, a square meal at one P.M., commences biz at two o’clock, gets lively at four, and at ten it is hip-liiphurrail till five in the morning (151)’.”  This mix of popular and academic writing does not work well together.

That said, I believe Dodge City is worth reading for the detailed insight into Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.  I particularly enjoyed Clavin’s efforts to show how these figures interacted with other legends of the American west.  And I certainly know a whole lot more about Dodge City than I ever did before!

 

 

Kit’s Crit: The Earth Is Weeping (Peter Cozzens)

The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story Of The Indian Wars For The American West

(Peter Cozzens)

The Earth Is Weeping is one of the most comprehensive and well-written accounts of the American Indian Wars of 1861-1891.  Peter Cozzens’ impeccably-researched, objective portrayal of the acts of bravery and incomprehensible atrocities committed on both sides makes compelling reading.  He examines the trusts and betrayals – mistrusts and support – vengeance – greed – long standing rivalries and hatreds that made up the causes and effects of the wars for the plains.

Cozzens takes pains to point out that there was no government extermination policy, but rather a lot of good and bad intentions in the name of Manifest Destiny.  Inter-tribal battles and inter-racial tensions helped escalate a volatile situation into the ultimate tragedy at Wounded Knee, where the Native Americans became overwhelmed by a technically-stronger invading force.  There is no romanticizing of men like Custer and Geronimo either.  Cozzens examines their strengths and weaknesses, achieving a candid balance to this bloody period in American history.

The Earth Is Weeping makes excellent addition to Dee Brown’s classic, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.  Highly recommended.

Kit’s Crit: The Cherokee Nation – A History (Robert J. Conley)

The Cherokee Nation : A History by Robert J. Conley

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Robert J. Conley is a member of the Cherokee Tribe who has written over seventy books.  It is therefore no surprise to find that The Cherokee Nation: A History (New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 2005) is an interesting and informative read.  This non-fiction history book is clearly written, well-organized, and offers a panoramic overview of the Cherokee people, from prehistoric times to the modern day.

The book begins by discussing various origin theories, both mythic and anthropological, and invites readers to examine the combined sources and recommended reading list at the end of the chapter.  He then traces tribal history through the Spanish invasion of 1540 – British Colonialism – the War of Independence – the Golden Age – the American Civil War – the Indian Wars – along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma – the separation of the Eastern Band of Cherokees – and into the Twentieth Century.

Because of the vast scope of this project there is a limited amount of information about each period.  To compensate, Conley concludes each section with glossary of the terms used, and a list of suggestions for further research.  He also includes pictures and photographs of the Principal Chiefs, from 1762 onward.

For readers interested in Native American history in general -and the Cherokee in particular – this book is a great place to start your journey.

Kit’s Crit: Fallen Women (Sandra Dallas)

Fallen Women (Sandra Dallas)

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At the start of 1885, a wealthy New York socialite – Beret Osmundsen – discovers that her estranged sister Lillie was recently murdered in a Denver brothel.  Beret immediately makes her way to her aunt’s house in the Mile-High City, and joins forces with the local detective to solve the case.  Then two other prostitutes are brutally killed and it seems like a serial killer may be stalking the tenderloin district.  But in an unexpected turn of events, things move much closer to home than Beret could ever have anticipated.

Sandra Dallas uncovers the seedy side of Denver, on both sides of the tracks.  Nothing – and no one – is as they first seem.  This mystery thriller keeps the reader guessing what terrible secrets will be uncovered next.  My only reservation is that the beautiful pacing throughout the majority of the novel loses traction at the end and rushes to a quick conclusion.  Nevertheless, Fallen Women is still an enjoyable read that raises fascinating ethical questions regarding family ties, loyalties, perceptions, and obligations.

Kit’s Crit: The Last Midwife (Sandra Dallas)

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Gracy Brookens is the healer that the women of a small Colorado mining town turn to in times of sickness and childbirth.  She knows all their secrets, and even has a few of her own that are revealed as the story progresses.  Then one day, this local midwife is accused of murdering the son and heir of the most important man in town.  Gracy is sent to trial and must fight to clear her name.  But in order to escape the noose she would have to break the confidences placed in her, which is something she is not prepared do.  The townsfolk rush to support – or condemn – her, either because they are grateful for her medical assistance or vengeful over past losses.

I thoroughly enjoyed this western historical fiction.  It effortlessly blends human frailty, murder and mystery, with pioneer strength and fortitude.  This type of drama could happen in any small town, but Sandra Dallas evokes such a sense of place that the reader is instantly plunged into the wild west, where the battle for survival takes an even greater toll on the women than on their men.

Highly recommended for generating an interesting and informative book club discussion.

Kit’s Crit: Cogewea – The Half-Blood (Mourning Dove)

Cogewea: The Half-Blood

(Mourning Dove)

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Cogewea is a “breed” or “half-blood,” a young woman stuck in the liminal world between two cultures.  Her grandmother gave her the tales of her Native American heritage, but she lives on her white bother-in-law’s ranch on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The book a romantic pulp fiction, yet the narrator offers some unique observations from the author’s own first-hand experiences, highlighting the emotional and psychological pressures of finding a comfortable place in an ever-changing world.

Cogewea is one of the first novels to be written by a First Nations female author.  Mourning Dove (Hum-Ishu-Ma) toiled for ten hours each day out in the fields, then typed her manuscript at night in her tent.  It was later edited by Lucullus Virgil McWhorter.  And although there are few surprises for the modern reader, it is hard not to admire the writer’s drive and dedication.  Mourning Dove had a limited education, no role models, and the hardships of poverty to overcome.  The language she uses is flowery and antiquated yet her insights into a vanished era are invaluable.  This is an important book from a historical perspective.  I would, however, only recommend it to readers with an academic interest in women writers or Native American literature.

Kit’s Crit: Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt)

Black Elk

Black Elk Speaks

(John G. Neihardt)

Black Elk was a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.  He told his life story to a Nebraskan poet called John Neihardt, when he visited the Great Sioux Reservation in the 1930s.  Black Elk Speaks has since become an American classic.

Although this biography records Black Elk’s personal memoir – “My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life” – it is also an enduring record of the Plains Indians’ belief system.  It describes the Ghost Dancers and the Messiah craze that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, December 1890.  This battle symbolized the end of the First Nations’ struggle for a return to their old lives: “A people’s dream died there.  It was a beautiful dream.”

Black Elk Speaks is a poignant account of the transition from the ancient spiritual world into the mechanized Twentieth Century.  In his Introduction, Vine Deloria, Jr. explains how the Holy Man “speaks to us with simple and compelling language about an aspect of human experience and encourages us to emphasize the best that dwells within us.”

This is an important, inspirational, historical record.  Highly recommended for readers of all ages.