Calamity Jane is an enigma of Western history. Clad in men’s clothing, she rode across the American West in the latter half of the 19th century, making a name for herself as a military scout, a hard drinker, dime-novel mainstay, and performer. Even after her death, Martha Jane Canary has proven immortal in Hollywood portrayals and, most recently, in an Emmy Award nominated performance by Robin Weigert in HBO’s series Deadwood (2004-2006, 20189.
Hidden beyond over a century of mythos, the real Calamity Jane can be hard to discern. In Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane (Yale UP, 2020), Dr. Karen Jones embraces the paradoxes and inconsistencies in Canary’s life story. Dr. Jones, professor of environmental and cultural history at the University of Kent, uses cultural and gender analysis to uncover the meanings of Calamity Jane as a character of the Wild West mythology – rather than playing the role of “truth detective,” Jones instead analyzes Jane’s many stories to uncover deeper meanings behind the stories about her life. In the case of Calamity Jane, it’s often the fiction that’s more revealing than truth.
Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.