Westerns: A Women’s His­tory by Vic­to­ria La­mont, Univer­sity of Ne­braska Press, 195 pages

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This vol­ume comes along just in time for this week­end’s fi­nal per­for­mance of Santa Fe Opera’s 2016 pro­duc­tion of Puc­cini’s horse opera, La fan­ci­ulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). That work’s hero­ine, Min­nie, dom­i­nates (and nur­tures) the men around her through her unas­sail­able chastity, big-sis­terly con­cern, and ster­ling char­ac­ter — not to men­tion her prow­ess with a sidearm. As La­mont shows in this schol­arly study, Min­nie’s pow­er­ful po­si­tion has in­ter­est­ing fem­i­nist par­al­lels in the ever-pop­u­lar genre of the Amer­i­can Western.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just guys who could wield their pens like pis­tols in writ­ing about cow­boys, Na­tive Amer­i­cans, sher­iffs, cat­tle rustlers, and ban­dits. Many highly com­pe­tent women au­thors held their own in the gen­er­ally male-dom­i­nated world of the Western novel of the late 19th and early to mid-20th cen­turies — even if at times they wrote us­ing pseu­do­nyms, though not as of­ten as you’d think. And they of­ten in­cluded sig­nif­i­cant fe­male char­ac­ters in their work, from law women and ranch­ers to the more tra­di­tional school­marms and other, more gen­tle hero­ines.

These fe­male au­thors in­cluded B.M. (Bertha Muzzy) Bower, Emma Ghent Curtis, Caro­line Lock­hart, Frances McEl­rath, Mourn­ing Dove (the pen name of Chris­tine Quin­tas­ket, a mem­ber of the Okana­gan Na­tion), and Muriel Ne­whall. La­mont re­veals that their out­put, along with that of other women writ­ers, was large, em­i­nently read­able, and clev­erly geared to its tar­get au­di­ence. As La­mont sums it up, “Women read­ers and au­thors have played a sub­stan­tial role in the his­tory of the genre.”

The book abounds in in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tions. For ex­am­ple, La­mont writes, “A more well known model of fem­i­nist in­ter­ven­tion in early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury pop­u­lar western dis­course is the lib­eral-fem­i­nist in­di­vid­u­al­ism of fig­ures such as An­nie Oak­ley … and the rodeo cow­girl. All are fem­i­nized ver­sions of the western male hero: Oak­ley earned celebrity sta­tus as a sharp­shooter with Buf­falo Bill’s Wild West Show, while tak­ing great care to pre­serve her rep­u­ta­tion as a re­spectable lady. … Early twen­ti­eth­cen­tury rodeo cow­girls com­peted in the same events as men — although not against them.”

A pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Water­loo in On­tario, Canada, La­mont ap­proaches her sub­ject with an aca­demic’s com­mand of form, sub­stance, and lan­guage; but she also demon­strates real af­fec­tion for the Western thriller tra­di­tion, plus a sin­cere ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the women’s abil­ity to tell a good strong story, along with their place in his­tory. As she notes in her in­tro­duc­tion, the book of­fers “a re­vi­sion­ist ac­count of the ori­gins of the pop­u­lar western,” and demon­strates that the genre was “founded as much by women writ­ers as by men and played a sig­nif­i­cant role in Amer­i­can women’s lit­er­ary his­tory at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.” Women, she con­cludes, “were ac­tive at ev­ery turn dur­ing the pe­riod, be­tween roughly 1880 and 1940, when the Amer­i­can fron­tier myth, af­ter years of ghet­toiza­tion in the dime novel, was sup­pos­edly ‘re­born’ as a dom­i­nant myth of Amer­i­can iden­tity.”

All in all, Westerns: A Women’s His­tory is an in­ter­est­ing and thought­ful work, but­tressed by rig­or­ous schol­ar­ship; but it also should ap­peal to gen­eral read­ers, es­pe­cially those in­ter­ested in women’s his­tory and lit­er­ary move­ments. — Craig A. Smith

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