Alannah Jones

Gold in Them Hills

Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane, Karen R. Jones, Yale University Press, 2020, 314pp, £20.00 (hardcover)

Outlawed, Anna North, Orion, 2021, 274pp, £14.99 (hardcover)

How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang, Virago Press, 2020, 336pp, £8.99 (paperback)

In our collective cultural imagination, few places or periods seem more quintessentially masculine than the American West. Thanks to the dominance of the Western genre during the early-mid twentieth century, the West came to symbolise an idealised, robust masculinity, epitomised by its leading men, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper: gruff, stoic, and uncomplicated. For a generation of male readers and filmgoers, the West became a lost patriarchal Eden, where men were men, and women were women. Not for nothing does Tony Soprano (The Sopranos, 1999), railing against the effeminacy of nineties America, lament: ‘Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong and silent type.’

That the reality is somewhat different should, to today’s readers, come as no surprise. But it is perhaps this gendered conception of the West that makes it an ideal subject and setting for writers seeking to question ideas of gender. A new generation of female writers is intent on complicating our view of the West: exploring the hidden history of women of the period, and using the tropes of the Western to question ideas of gender identity. 

Such an intent is clear in Karen R. Jones’s new autobiography of Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane. Unusually for a biographer, Jones does not claim to be overly concerned with presenting the ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ of her subject’s life. Rather she aims to emphasise ‘story-telling, gender and performance as a way of understanding the folkloric pageant that surrounded Calamity Jane in her life and afterlife’. For Jones, it is appropriate that the reality of Martha Jane Canary’s life and the definitive pinning down of the facts of her life play second fiddle to the cultural legacy surrounding her. Her life and fable are ‘necessarily and irrevocably entangled’, and further bound up in the myth of the West itself.

Her thesis is that since so many iterations of the person and character exist, and this process of mythologising began long before her death, it is impossible – and, in Jones’s view, unnecessary – to report the true dates, experiences and achievements. We are unsure of the date and place of her birth, whether she had children, the nature of her relationship with ‘Wild Bill Hickock’ or even how she came to have the famous moniker of ‘Calamity Jane’ in the first place (although the most famous story involves the valiant rescue of a U.S. Army Captain from a band of Nez Percé Indians). All we really know is she was an itinerant drifter, tall of stature and story – she wore the costumes and played the part in touring shows based on her own legend – and an alcoholic, dead by middle age. The rest is little more than vaudeville.

Jones sees Canary as typical of a generation of women who settled in the West in the mid-nineteenth century. Drawn by the promise of gold in the hills and empty acres to be claimed, millions swarmed there before there was the infrastructure to support them. Such was the case for the Canarys: 

‘The demographic mobility of the Canarys was typical of period emigrants, who bounced from farm to farm seeking a prosperity that seemed to lie ever westwards… This attraction for an untamed frontier ascribed to Calamity Jane a traditionally masculine outlook. Women, it was assumed, typically approached the West with reluctance and saw few redeeming aspects to the drudgery of a migrant life.’

It is precisely this outlook – the association of masculinity with freedom and femininity with drudgery – that Jones sees as the catalyst for Canary’s tendency to don male garb. This was a common phenomenon in the Old West, one Jones sees as largely born out by expediency. In her view, cross-dressing women were  ‘using costume as a tactic to claim economic opportunities and articulate a freer sense of individual agency’. Jones’s use of the word costume here implies the performative element and perhaps a misplaced frivolity. Yet the relative lack of social infrastructure in the early West afforded increased reason and opportunity to ‘pass’ as male. 

Calamity herself in her own life and in her ‘afterlife’ of popular culture prominence, is and was known as a woman – case in point, her most famous representation in popular culture is the gun-toting yet perfectly coiffed Doris Day leaping nimbly around the back of a stage wagon whip crackin’ her way across the plains. Her open, if decidedly masculine-presenting womanhood, contrasts with some of the other individuals discussed by Jones including One-Eyed Charley (Charlotte Pankhurst) and Jack Bee Garland (Babe Bean). Many of these ‘women’ lived as men, took wives, owned property and were only ‘discovered’ after their deaths. 

In focusing on the economic and practical motivations of women who cross-dressed or sought to ‘pass’, she perhaps elides the possibility that these were deeper, more profound expressions of sexual and gender identity, that perhaps these people had found a time and a place amidst the rugged West in which they could live their truth. 

Anna North’s Outlawed addresses this question with more nuance. Partway through the novel a gender non-binary character reflects: ‘I know how living under a false name depletes the storehouse of the heart.’

This novel, North’s third, contains a rich cast of queer and gender non-conforming characters against the backdrop of a reimagined West. Opening in ‘the year of Our Lord 1894’, the timeline of the novel has apparently diverged from our own, sometime in the early nineteenth century with a deadly flu pandemic that has reportedly killed more than ninety per cent of the population, toppling the government and ending slavery almost overnight. North’s narrative begins some sixty years later, in a country still struggling to rebuild itself in the wake of a devastating extermination event. It is testament to North’s world-building that such a shift does not feel egregious but rather serves to emphasise the defining characteristics of the Western, heightening the barbarity, lawlessness and reactionary authorities imposing law and order. In this alternate world, fertility and conception are next to godliness and seen as every woman’s ultimate duty and purpose. Comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may be slightly reductive but certainly not unfounded. 

The narrator, Ada’s, voice is clear and defined from the outset. As a barren woman, she is forced to flee her town when accused of practising witchcraft. Having been married for a year without successfully conceiving a child, she is the subject of suspicion from the townspeople – the community she served as an apprentice midwife. Having coaxed dozens of newborns into the world is not enough to protect her from the murderous intent of, primarily, the women of the town, supported by the town’s sheriff. Her choices recall those faced by Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: death or the nunnery. Like Hermia, she chooses to reject them and flee; eventually reaching North’s equivalent of the Athenian forest. 

The scene in which Ada reaches the band of outlaws is joyously evoked in North’s prose, merrily usurping the gruff whisky-drinking, black-hatted, mustache-twirling tropes you might expect from the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Flower crowns, champagne, a dancer adorned with bells and a fiddler playing the tune from Twelfth Night welcome Ada into their midst. Instead of the large group of hardened outlaws she expected, Ada finds a close-knit group of women and non-binary outcasts, a community of those who have found kinship and camaraderie in a chosen family. 

The gang is led by a character known only as the Kid, whose name recalls both Billy the Kid and the Sundance Kid (several of the other gang members names’ recall those of the real-life Hole-in-the-Wall Gang). The Kid exists outside of the gender spectrum: ‘Not he, not she,’ a gang member explains to Ada, ‘The Kid is just the Kid’. The Kid proves to be the most fascinating of North’s creations: a charismatic, fearless but flawed leader, with a utopian vision to build ‘a nation of the dispossessed’ and penchant for declaiming bible verses: ‘I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.’ Although defined as outlaws by their expulsion from society, their intent is to build a ‘new Canaan’ – a refuge for those who don’t or can’t conform. The Kid in particular recalls a very different (but no less American) figure: non-conforming, non-conformist preachers, like the Public Universal Friend. 

In an interview with Vox (where North is employed as resident gender and identity writer) North describes her intention to upend the classic Western myth: 

‘What happens if the myth is a little different? What would it look like if this outlaw gang of Western lore looked a little different than it does – in some of our histories, I should say. There’s a big tradition now of doing this, not necessarily with outlaws.’ 

In the same interview, she cites C Pam Zhang’s Booker Prize nominated How Much of these Hills is Gold as a fellow proponent of reimagined Westerns:

‘It’s not about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but there are outlaw tropes in it. It’s about the gold rush, and it’s got a family that includes people who are immigrants, and what that means… Ever since I finished the book, I’ve been blown away by this cool emerging tradition that I didn’t even necessarily know about when I was writing.’

Zhang’s debut is a new spin on the genre; focusing on the experience of a Chinese-American family during the California gold rush she displaces the classic whiteness of the Western. Like Outlawed, the plot features enough Western hallmarks to anchor it in the genre – horse theft, bank robbery, itinerancy. Both novels also feature gender conforming characters and those trying to carve out a space that is home in a formidable landscape of the old West. 

Hills begins with a recently orphaned pair of siblings hauling their father’s corpse in a trunk across the inhospitable plains, searching for somewhere that feels enough like home to be his final resting place. It’s a striking and emotionally jarring jumping-off point, while the novel’s non-linear telling is formally inventive. You can tell Zhang has worked very hard to craft such rich prose, full of allusion and metaphor. Told mostly from the perspective of Lucy, the elder of the siblings, each line is finely wrought in a rich filigree. You often wish she hadn’t worked quite so hard however, as the descriptives and allusions often get in the way of the story, stymying the momentum of the more dramatic sequences. 

Like the Kid, Lucy’s sibling Sam is almost always referred to with no pronouns at all. As was the case with many of the women in Jones’s Calamity, Sam initially began dressing as a boy in order to work alongside their father in the mines to keep the family from destitution. Although Sam continues to present as male long after the family breaks apart, it is ambiguous whether this is out of a sense of duty to their father (who had longed for a son) or in alignment with Sam’s own gender identity. A particularly heartrending sequence featuring a carrot stuffed down Sam’s underwear, closely juxtaposed with the memorable image of the father’s withered and decomposing penis: ‘It’s as long as a finger but thicker. Softer, with wrinkled skin. No bone that she can see. It gives under her toes, like a dried plumb.’ It’s unimpressiveness leads Lucy to question: ‘What makes a man a man?’. 

The novel’s strengths are in the way Zhang engages intelligently with themes of gender, belonging and land ownership. Some plot elements and character motivations don’t quite stand up to scrutiny, and the excess of florid and lyrical language might have been more judiciously reserved for Zhang’s incontestably beautiful descriptions of the landscapes. Her protagonists are as much at risk of being swallowed by the land as they are likely to find a home within it. Like the Kid, they seek land ownership as the ultimate key to power and security – however inhospitable and cruel that land may be.

The ‘new tradition’ to which both Zhang and North offer their contributions is genuinely exciting, and feels like fertile territory for ever more retellings. Jones’s conclusion to her exhaustive excavation of the many layers of myth and legend heaped on top of the figure known as Calamity Jane feels equally prophetic and inviting to other revisionist and proto-feminist reimaginings of the genre: ‘There are, undoubtedly, more stories to be told.’ If North and Zhang’s effort are anything to go by, there is gold in these hills yet.


Alannah Dorli Jones
is a freelance arts writer and cultural commentator living in Manchester. She is a resident Podcast Reviewer for the Times Radio and is a contributor to Londonist and A Younger Theatre.

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