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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Several colorful characters are woven into the patchwork of Larry McMurtry’s novel Buffalo Girls, many based on true individuals from the American Wild West, such as Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody. In typical McMurtry fashion, his imaginative vision breathes life and feeling into the persona of these folklore legends.

Reflecting back on her adventurous life through a series of touching letters penned to her daughter Janey, who she sent away as a baby to avoid a rowdy life on the frontier, Martha Jane (Calamity) reveals the relationships forged with those who helped her develop into an infamous Wild West woman. Although known as a whisky drinking sharp-shooter who sometimes dressed as a man, Calamity’s softer side is revealed through this clever epistolary device.

These characters are reunited when persuasive master of schemes Buffalo Bill Cody, acknowledged for his buffalo hunting prowess and showmanship, is able to convince Calamity and other aging legends to travel to London to appear in his celebrated traveling Wild West Show. Effortlessly moving the setting from the Old West to nineteenth-century England, McMurtry sets the scene for a shooting match that takes place in front of the Prince of Wales between Annie Oakley and Lord Windhouveren (known as the best shot in England), as well as Wild West skits performed by the American legends, which include an embarrassing turn for Calamity.

As a writer, McMurtry is skillfully able to write from a woman’s point of view, revealing the complexities of Calamity’s character and her relationships with the other characters, such as Bartle Bone and Jim Ragg, a wizened beaver-trapping duo who helped her forge a path out of St. Louis and make a name of herself in the Wild West. Calamity was a strong, independent female way before feminism was recognized as a movement, keeping Bartle and Jim guessing about her true identity: “I’ve never been able to decide whether Calamity is a woman,” Bartle said. Jim’s response: “I guess she’s a woman and you oughta know,” accusing them of being sweethearts once when he saw them sneak off together. But Bartle insists it was not a romantic tryst, just Calamity wanting him to teach her knife-throwing techniques.

Other notable characters include No Ears, a wise and faithful Ogalala Sioux native American who lost his ears to French traders and insists on calling Calamity "Martha" and Dora DuFran, an attractive woman with soft dark hair sprinkled with a little gray who runs a saloon and whorehouse in Miles City with the ironic title Hotel Hope. She has had many suitors over the years but her heart belongs to former roaming cowboy Blue, now settled as a married rancher, although he still visits Miles City and Dora now and then.

The letters to Janey help tie together all the characters in Buffalo Girls and the reason for Calamity choosing such a raucous lifestyle. Since she couldn’t give Janey what she wanted, she envisioned what her daughter’s life would have been like. These dreams helped give Calamity courage and encouragement throughout her life, and she wrote “you were the finest of my hopes, may you always live.”

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