Last spring, I was in Banff working on a novel and had one of those days where I couldn’t look at another page without wanting to wander off and place myself between the two cougars rumoured to be fighting for territory in the park because at least that would make a good story.
Instead I went to the library and picked up The Sisters Brothers, even though I was skeptical of a literary take on an old-timey western cowboy quest. I spent the next eight hours reading it start to finish. Turns out if you put someone on a horse and give them a rifle and a destination, I just might be compelled to wonder what happens next.
Natalee Caple’s new novel, In Calamity’s Wake, puts a cowgirl on a horse with a quest and, well, I was already enthusiastic. Her adventurous and inventive new novel could fit comfortably alongside Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Gil Adamson’s The Outlander and, as many reviewers have already noted, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in a course about Canadians reimagining the gun-slinging Old West.
It is a richly imaginative exploration of the legendary Calamity Jane – a frontierswoman, sharpshooter and American folk hero – told via her daughter Miette, whom Jane (real name: Martha) left with a preacher when she was just a baby. It’s a rollicking and cinematic adventure story of one heroine on horseback on a quest to seek another, using both traditional storytelling and a collage of historical facts and reinventions. It’s also a lesson in how legends are made through the stories that get told and retold, exaggerated and claimed, until the truth is too slippery to hold in your hand.
The novel is divided into alternating chapters titled Miette and Martha. Miette’s chapters are the most compelling, from a storytelling point of view. In breathless first-person prose, we sit with Miette at her adopted father’s side as he dies, and hear her promise to honour his wishes that she go to find her mother.
After his burial, she sets out on horseback feeling somewhat conflicted; like most children left by a birth parent, she has many mixed emotions about her quest. She also has many odds against her success, as everyone she encounters seems to think they know exactly where Martha is, but they very rarely do. Miette has to develop and use some street smarts (trail smarts?) if she’s going to come out alive, and some cunning if she is actually going to find Martha behind the fog of tall tales told about Calamity Jane.
The Martha chapters are written in the third person, and each chapter uses a variety of techniques to tell her side (or the many sides) of Martha’s life story. A pastiche of mythology, historical accounts, song lyrics, poetry, rumours, and fiction of the time period, Martha’s chapters are more of a puzzle to decipher. The authentic stories of most famous historical figures, especially those who step outside the lines of gendered expectations, are rarely revealed. Perhaps Calamity Jane was actually more of an altruist than a murderous gun-toting party girl? There are many ways to read Martha’s chapters; they are brimming with evidence of meticulous research. (It was not surprising to read that this was Caple’s PhD thesis.)
The different tone between the chapters is a bit jarring at first, with the Miette narrative ambling along seamlessly as she dodges murderous bandits, falls asleep and wakes up next to a slumbering wolf, gets shot in the ear by a madwoman. By contrast, the Martha chapters read like mini-lessons on the legendary figure. Initially, I was eager to just continue on with Miette as her story was so alive and suspenseful, and the Martha chapters slowed the pace down.
Ultimately, investing in Martha’s fractured narrative collage adds a depth to the story as a whole, and pays off beautifully in the end as their stories blend. And although the focus is on Calamity Jane, there is no doubt that daughter Miette is the true heroine, as she uncovers her connection to her often mythologized and misunderstood mother and discovers herself in the process.
In Calamity’s Wake reinvents the western quest novel with nuanced female characters. It’s ambitious and smart, and just as suspenseful as its setting would suggest.
Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel is Holding Still For As Long as Possible. She is a regular contributor to Globe Books.