The fourteenth of Larry McMurtry’s novels is the third to investigate the Old West. Like its predecessor, Anything for Billy (1988), Buffalo Girls is an ironic and often humorous depiction of the lives of legendary Western heroes and heroines. Unlike McMurtry’s first venture into this territory, Lonesome Dove (1985), Anything for Billy and the new novel combine historical figures and fictional creations. Neither of these two more recent efforts has the epic scope or the powerful characterizations of Lonesome Dove, but Buffalo Girls is a clear improvement on McMurtry’s version of the life of Billy the Kid.
Calamity Jane is at the center of the action of Buffalo Girls. She is a puzzling character; even to her closest friends, the fictional creations Jim Ragg and Bartle Bone, and her Indian protector, No Ears. She has survived the rough and tumble of the frontier, despite a temper that frequently gets her into trouble and an inability to shoot accurately with pistol or rifle, which makes her vulnerable to those she offends. She drinks heavily, and when she drinks she does foolish things, battling the London police when the Wild West show goes to England, insulting her friends as well as her enemies, and wandering off into blizzards on the prairies. Ragg and Bone sometimes puzzle over whether she is in fact a woman.
The third-person narrative, which reports from the viewpoints of many of the characters, is broken frequently by letters purporting to be written by the central character. In these letters, written by Calamity Jane to a daughter named Janey, who lives in Springfield with a foster father; there is no doubt about her sex: She is a woman and a mother. Further, the letters tell Janey that her natural father was Wild Bill Hickock, another legendary Western figure, who has often been associated with Calamity Jane in books and movies. The letters reveal a Calamity Jane who is all too aware of her weaknesses. When she is away from Miles City, whether on a hunting trip with Ragg and Bone or on the long trip taken by the Wild West show to London, she wishes only to be back in Montana with her great friend Dora DuFran.
The major plot strand in Buffalo Girls evolves from a visit by Buffalo Bill to Miles City to recruit authentic Western figures for the Wild West show he is taking to England. Calamity Jane, No Ears, and Ragg and Bone all sign up to go, with varying degrees of trepidation. Calamity cannot think of a reason not to go, No Ears is curious about crossing the great lake, Ragg has run out of beaver to trap, and Bone is always curious about what the women will look like in another country.
The venture is a financial success, but the characters have different reactions to England and their experience there. Annie Oakley embarrasses the British with her skill, humiliating the best British shot, Lord Windhouveren, in a match and forcing him into exile. Calamity Jane embarrasses Wild Bill and her friends with her drunken carousing, often winding up in jail. No Ears finds the London zoo and is fascinated by all the strange animals as well as by the propensity of white men for caging other creatures. Jim Ragg also finds the zoo and discovers there a beaver pond filled with the flat-tailed creatures imported from Canada. Since he has long since run out of beaver on the streams of the American West, Ragg falls in love with those he finds in London and would stay there if he could.
Bartle Bone has a different kind of adventure. Thoroughly enjoying London’s women, he eventually comes across a young and presumably unspoiled girl named Pansy Clowes and marries her, an event which, as his friends observe, settles him down considerably. Upon their return to the United States, Pansy takes up with a steamboat captain on the Missouri and leaves Bartle, deciding that a winter in New Orleans will be preferable to roughing it on the Plains with an old man and his pals. Sitting Bull demands to be treated royally and is often offended when he is not. No Ears finds Sitting Bull dull and lacking in natural curiosity.
The other story which helps hold the novel together is the long and difficult relationship between Dora DuFran and her lover, Blue. Over the years he has frequently asked her to marry him, and she has just as frequently refused, but when he married another woman and moved to a ranch on the Musselshell she was heartbroken. She enjoys the flattery of Buffalo Bill’s attentions to her when he comes to Miles City, and he professes to wish that he had married her, but nothing is more important to her than Blue’s occasional visits, when they alternately make love and fight over his desertion of her.
Eventually Dora is rescued from a muddy street by a young and naive settler named Ogden Prideaux, and in gratitude bestows her favors on him. Ogden is totally captivated and in short order Dora decides to marry him, knowing that she has found a strong...