Nonfiction: Calamity Jane, Mexicans in America, Racial Passing, & Civil Rights Murders | Xpress Reviews

Week ending August 22, 2014

Etulain, Richard W. The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane. Univ. of Oklahoma. Sept. 2014. 416p. bibliog. ISBN 9780806146324. $24.95. HIST
In this exhaustively detailed biography of Calamity Jane, Etulain (history, Univ. of New Mexico; Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians) seeks to set the historical record straight on the life of this near-mythical Wild West figure. Etulain meticulously reviews and critiques a vast array of research materials including newspaper articles, dime novels, historical documents, and archival materials to create a balanced and encyclopedic portrait of the larger-than-life persona who was born Martha Canary in Missouri in 1856. As an experienced historian of the American West, the author is understandably interested in fact over storytelling, but at times this work reads more like an annotated bibliography than a biography.
Verdict Etulain’s dogged determination to present and often rebut seemingly every single source that mentions his subject will likely delight researchers, academics, and history buffs seeking an exacting account of the materials used to re-create Calamity Jane’s life. However, recreational readers will likely find his approach tedious. Biography fans might prefer James D. McLaird’s Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend, while fiction readers may like Pete Dexter’s gritty novel Deadwood or Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls.—Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI

Foley, Neil. Mexicans in the Making of America. Belknap: Harvard Univ. Oct. 2014. 334p. notes. ISBN 9780674048485. $29.95. HIST
Comprehensive immigration reform has been a hot-topic political issue for much of recent history, with camps split between hardline border security and anti-illegal immigrant sentiment to those pushing for a “path to citizenship” for the thousands of undocumented immigrants in America. Foley (history, Southern Methodist Univ.) tells the story of Mexican migration to the United States, starting with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and required Mexico to cede land that now constitutes California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. The story of this border, and movement across it, has been intertwined in the stories of the United States and Mexico and in fact relates the background of how, through the Mexican immigration saga, the United States is becoming “more egalitarian, more accepting of difference—in short, more American.” If demographers are correct that America will become a minority-majority nation by mid-century as predicted, this history will be a critical part of America’s future.
Verdict This well-researched and well-written overview of the history of Mexican migration to the United States is recommended for those wishing to learn more about the current immigration issue or the history of U.S.-Mexico relations.—Michael C. Miller, Austin P.L. & Austin History Ctr., TX

Hobbs, Allyson. A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. Harvard Univ. Oct. 2014. 384p. notes. ISBN 9780674368101. $29.95. HIST
chosenexile082214The phenomenon of passing, a person considered to be a member of a social or ethnic group other than their own, can be found in a variety of manners: race, gender, disability, social status, etc. In this account, Hobbs (history, Stanford Univ.) focuses on light-skinned African Americans “passing” as white. She reveals that early examples of passing were used as a weapon against racial discrimination but were done so at the expense of personal and community integrity. Those who were able to pass as white during segregation were afforded many social privileges, most notably the illusion of achieving one’s personal and professional dreams with greater ease. The author also includes elements of her own family history throughout the narrative. She recalls a long-lost cousin who passed as white and moved out-of-state, leaving behind friends and family, never to return or even acknowledge any of them again. From there the stories continue, each equally compelling and mournful.
Verdict By investigating the binary lives of the so-called ghosts that exist in American history, Hobbs raises important questions and ideas about race relations and the “lost” histories of African American communities. Suitable for readers interested in sociology, race relations, or the private and personal meanings of identity.—Cicely Douglas, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL

Mayor, Adrienne. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. Princeton Univ. Oct. 2014. 512p. photos. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780691147208. $29.95 HIST
Few recent books have systematically examined the myths of the Amazons, and even fewer have seriously studied the historical basis for these women warriors. In this work, which the author describes as an “Encyclopedia Amazonica,” Mayor (classics, Stanford; Poison King) does both. After summarizing the archaeological evidence from excavated burial sites that point to the Scythians as the origin of the stories of warrior women in Greek mythology, the book discusses, chapter by chapter, various traditions associated with the Amazons. Examples of these customs include sexual practices, body modifications, and even self-mutilation. The author compares the reality of the historical Scythians with the mythology and art of the Greeks. Next, she applies the same comparisons to each major Amazon myth (Hippolyte, Antiope, Penthesilea, Thalestris, and others) and finally concludes with examinations of similar myths about civilizations in the Far East.
Verdict While this book will at times feel repetitive, its comprehensive treatment of so many different aspects of the Amazons makes it a must-read for anyone interested in either Amazonian myth or history. Extensive notes will please scholars, but the language is approachable and mostly nontechnical.—Fred Poling, Long Beach City Coll. Lib., CA

Romano, Renee C. Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders. Harvard Univ. Oct. 2014. 270p. notes. ISBN 9780674050426. $35. HIST
Romano (Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America) attacks a weighty and complicated topic in her latest work. This impactful book explores the full range of murders and attacks associated with the 1960s civil rights movement (many more than were originally known) and the concerted efforts of law enforcement throughout the country to make sure the perpetrators escaped punishment. Romano’s text offers background into the complex sociological and psychological issues at work relating to these specific killings and then explores the present-day trials of 1960s era defendants who previously eluded prosecution. The breadth of the violence, when seen across the spectrum of crimes, is appalling, while Romano’s crisp and exacting writing makes easy work of the topic.
Verdict Perfect for undergraduate libraries or classrooms and those interested in the civil rights era.—Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI



  1. I wonder if Ingrid Levin, the reviewer of my new biography of Calamity Jane, has read James McLaird’s definitive biography of the subject. He is even more factually thorough than I in treating the varied, shifting interpretations of Sister Calamity. I am surprised, too, that the reviewer would make comparative comments among my biography and the novels by Pete Dexter and Larry McMurtry. Can useful comparisons be made among these very diverse works?

    Dick Etulain