Western Lit: A Filmmaker Chronicles a Small Western Town—Poorly—in the Compelling Novel 'Calamity Jane'Written by Phyllis Barber
After nearly two decades of literary silence, former mystery writer Bernard Schopen is back with Calamity Jane, a new novel that asks serious questions about the West.
His protagonist, independent filmmaker Jane Harmon, returns triumphantly from Hollywood to Blue Lake, Nev., to showcase The Last Roundup, a documentary she’s made about the townspeople’s lives. Jane’s received “bouquets of encomium and accolades for her assessment of the rural West and the American desert, of what should be done in it and who should do it.” The Last Roundup even aired on PBS.
Winnifred Westrom, the book’s narrator, is a former schoolmarm and closet poet who reassembles the story of Jane’s one-year sojourn in Blue Lake and tries to come to terms with this modern-day Calamity Jane (as the locals call her), who’s wreaked havoc on their lives at every turn. Winnifred has sympathy for the realities that Jane’s film portrays, but also “feels it at odds with (her own) sense of things.” After all, Jane arrived with “ideas and attitudes shaped by Out There teachers. … She took us in, made us material to be worked by her art and didn’t recognize us otherwise.” This emotional flaw keeps Jane from penetrating or even recognizing the barrier that stands between her viewpoint and that of the town.
Jane’s larger-than-life stories of two characters—Brock Walden, a Don-Juan-of-the-West TV star who owns a local ranch, and Ione Hardaway, the pistol-packing manager of Walden’s livestock operation—miss the hidden details that don’t fit into her well-crafted narrative: the stuff of ordinary rural people who ain’t tellin’ their secrets to nobody.
“Out There,” the sensibility that shaped Jane’s version of the Wild West, collides with “Out Here,” the authentic Real West represented by the town. Schopen has taken a wise, smartly written, complex look at the everyday mysteries to be found, and perhaps solved, in a group of human beings with various passions, Achilles’ heels and a near-addiction to small-town gossip, which is often flavored with the truth. Can Jane, with her limited awareness of other people’s inner lives, ever understand what this land means to those trying to wring a livelihood from it? Or will she always be an outsider, bending the truth to fit her own myth?
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
By Bernard Schopen
270 pages, $16.95