Calamity Jane was an American frontierswoman famous for her participation in military conflicts with Native Americans and, in her private life, for her empathy and kindness. Her real name was Martha Jane Canary, and her nickname comes from her bravura, from her courting disaster and surviving it.
Natalee Caple uses Jane’s legend as the basis of her aptly named novel In Calamity’s Wake, in which Jane’s daughter Miette (also based on Jane’s real daughter—or a woman who claimed to be her), searches for her mother. It is a story about identity, as the search for our parents, who they are, what they are like, is a way to know ourselves. Miette’s quest is complicated by the legend that surrounds her mother. Everybody whom Miette meets or sees in a vision—a madwoman, a troubadour, a madam, a ghost—claims to know her mother. Every story about her offers a different portrait: a soldier, a nurse, an entertainer, a drunkard, a good Samaritan, a lover, a friend. It could be that no one knew her at all, or that all these people knew only a part of her.
The book is written in poetic prose, in alternating chapters from the point of view of Calamity Jane or Miette. Their stories start at a physical and chronological distance and slowly converge in time and place until the mother and the daughter finally meet.
On another level, the novel is Natalee Caple’s search for the real Calamity Jane. In her attempt to imagine and recreate the life of this woman, Natalee Caple sifts through historical documents, diaries, pamphlets, letters, and memoirs as if panning for gold. The book is also the author’s search for veracity, the emotional truth of the worlds and characters she creates.
Fiction writers are the greatest liars, and their works are like their children. In her letter to Miette, Jane says: “A lie is a thing. It is a real thing in the world like a diamond or a gold nugget or a name or a hole in the wall…. Some believe in it, some don’t…. Once it’s there you can fill it, or cover it up, or elaborate on it.”
- Kasia Jaronczyk