Sidekicks in Buffalo Girls

March 9, 2007 at 11:51 am | Posted in sidekicks, western | Leave a comment

Mbuffalo-girls-movie.jpgcMurtry, L. (1990).Buffalo Girls. NY: Simon and Schuster.  

This western novel offers an eccentric array of sidekick characters to discuss.  The book’s central figure is the real-life Western scout and frontierswoman Calamity Jane. The novel is set in the 1890’s stretching from Missouri to later-calamity.gifDeadwood, South Dakota. The book focuses on Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show with his motley cast of “Western legends”.  

At the novel’s start, Calamity Jane is in her 40’s, swearing, drinking and fighting up a storm as she searches for her “old gang” with her dog Cody and horse Satan. This gang includes mountainmen, an Indian, Bill Cody, and a retired madam. 

Jim Ragg and Bartle Bone have been together for decades as stagecoach drivers, scouts,  and now as solitary mountainmen scratching out a tenuous life in the wilderness. Ragg and Bone have complementary temperaments to amplify parts of Calamity Jane’s ornery persona. Note McMurtry’s sardonic wit in these character names. The expression “rag and bone” is a British term for the shop where the worst castoffs end up. I suspect this is McMurtry’s commentary on how civilized society has treated the vestiges of the old West’s land and people. 

Ragg is morose and stoic, a crack-shot hunter and skillful wilderness guide. Bone is cheerful, garrulous and sociable, enjoying the company of prostitutes when in town. Bone is competitive and considers himself exceptional at everything though he’s average at best. His boasting is just like Calamity’s exaggerated retelling of her exploits. Ragg and Bone join Cody’s show only because Ragg wants to earn money to repopulate the Missouri River with beavers. Ragg wants to atone for his years of animal slaughter as a trapper.  

Calamity Jane considered Ragg and Bone her family because they befriended her as a teenager, teaching her how to scout and drive a coach. Ragg and Bone, as rugged individualists, could accept Jane’s aberrations.  Like “Ragg and Bone”, Calamity is a misfit and castoff. She was scorned and marginalized because she violated society’s ideas of feminity by acting and dressing like a frontiersman. 

No Ears , an Ogala Indian in his 50s, is another sidekick and my favorite character. No Ears was so dubbed at age 10, after French traders shot him, cut off his ears and left him for dead . Inasumuch as No Ears and Calamity have rescued each other during terrible storms, the Indian’s secret nickname for Jane is Helpful. No Ears can hear, but he uses his disability as a cloak, while communing with animals or tapping into his mystical senses (regrettably narrated in a heavy-handed, stereotypical way by McMurtry). 

Dora DuFran is the former madam and big-hearted saloon owner who befriends her Martha Jane. Her role as sidekick is to bring out the nurturing, feminine dimensions of Calamity Jane’s character. As Dora lays dying after childbirth, however, Calamity is unable to comfort her friend or to help raise the orphan baby, revealing her inadequacies lurking beneath her scout bravado. 

In 1995, Buffalo Girls was faithfully translated into a TV movie starring Angelica Huston as Calamity Jane with dead-on casting of sidekicks such as Jack Palance for Bartle Bone.  Buffalo Girls movie (IMDB summary).  


McMurtry Western

March 9, 2007 at 7:46 am | Posted in awards, postmodern, western | Leave a comment

McMurtry, L. (1990).Buffalo Girls.New York: Simon and Schuster.  

buffalo-girls-book.jpgAward Winning  Author  If you want to read a recent (1990+) western, Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls (Winner of the Western Heritage Award)  is a natural choice.  McMurtry is an iconic contemporary writer in the Western genre, author to more than 20 books, 2 essay collections and over 30 screenplays,  Clad in jeans and cowboy hat, Texan McMurtry accepted the 2006 Golden Globe and Academy Awards as co-author of the screenplay  Brokeback Mountain, a breakout Western about Montana sheepwranglers who are secret gay lovers.  McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove won Western’s Spur Award (1985) and the 1986 Pulitzer Prize.  

BygoneWest   McMurtry is a masterful storyteller, weaving memorable characters into a narrative rich in authentic details about a bygone West. He is an unusual author of this genre because he uses satire and black humor to debunk myths of the romantic West. That said, my reading experience of McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls, was like showing up at a rowdy wedding reception when all that’s left are cake crumbs, strewn confetti and maudlin drunks. I did not enjoy reading the book, and would not recommend it because of its relentlessly depressing plot. However, for students of popular culture,  I feel it accurately captured the frontiersmen’s delight conquering the wild unknown and despair fighting loneliness, poverty and hostile elements.

In Buffalo Girls, McMurtry tells the story of the last days of the rough-n-ready West, combining characters who are real aging Western legends –Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody– with a fictional ensemble of Western stock types including mountain men and Indians.  It is a sad, meandering tale about the characters’ roles as actors touring in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show sprinkled with reminiscences about “the good old days” of the open frontier.  

Post-Modern Western I’ve dubbed Buffalo Girls  a “post-modern” Western, for several reasons. The protagonist, Calamity Jane is an androgynous anti-hero. She’s an incorrigible drunk with a propensity for starting fights and exaggerating about past feats. Unlike the classic Western hero, Jane is a poor shot, inept camper, failed wife and mother whose glory days as a scout and solder’s nurse are long gone. Secondly, it’s hard to map this work into Western plot variations as defined by Berger (Popular Culture Genres, 1992). Since it falls beyond the “professional–hired gunfighter” stage, I’d propose to add a “professional celebrity or icon” stage. The characters are now Western stars re-enacting roles as sureshots or Indian fighters for an urban paying audience.  

Another post-modern motif is the sense of loss or passage. The frontiersmen ruefully regret their decimation of wildlife, so now a trapper has to visit a London zoo to see live beaver.  A final post-modern element is McMurtry’s unvarnished descriptions of the grit,  privations and stresses of mundane Western life. No romantic night under the stars for his cowboys. Instead, they wake up with spittle-frozen beards to roast a prairie dog with meat so tough it takes an hour per piece to chew. 

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