Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The New West: In Calamity's Wake

In Calamity's Wake / Natalee Caple
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2013.
296 p.

This is a Western, a modern Western that owes much to the dreamscapes of modern film, to magical realism, and to feminist rewritings of the great themes of epic Western novels. There have been a few books in Canadian fiction lately to use the historical Northwest as their canvas, and this fits right in; it's set in the late 1800's in the Badlands area.

Miette is a young woman who is searching for her mother after her adoptive father, a priest, dies. She sets off across the West (the region is not clearly demarcated into US and Canada at this point in history, at least not for those living there) on her quest. Her aim is to find her mother Martha, more commonly known as Calamity Jane.

The story moves with a dreamlike intensity at the beginning, and it reveals Miette's state of mind -- her shock at the loss of her foster father, her vague idea about where to start in her search for her mother. She runs across random people on the road, and either avoids or engages as she feels led. Her narrative is loose, with the rhythms of travel, as she searches throughout the novel for the most recent trace of her mother.

Interspersed with Miette's chapters are those of Martha. Most of Martha's chapters are third-person, and they reveal elements of Martha's life, the bits which have been adapted, enlarged, exaggerated, created, to form the figure of Calamity Jane. This story is a search in many ways: Miette's actual search for her mother, but also a search for the truth of Martha's life. Is there one? The novel examines the process of myth-making, of how Martha became Calamity Jane.

The story ranges over the West, with barrooms, outcasts, wolves, outlaws, danger, prostitutes, vaudeville, and many other western tropes. It mixes fiction with historical fact, on both people and events, and creates a collage-like reading experience. I thought it was interesting -- original and fresh. But I didn't love the book, finding that the unsettled, dreamy style went on far too long for my taste. I wanted something to happen eventually, but the disjointed nature of the narrative (while a conscious choice clearly made for artistic reasons) kept me from really investing in the story. I admire this book, for its creativity (and the gorgeous book design) but it's not something I'll read again. Stories about the West intrigue and fascinate me generally, but I just couldn't fully connect with this one.

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