REVIEW: Tumbleweed by Jane Candia Coleman
Dear Ms. Coleman,
When your publicist offered us the chance to review your latest novel, all that truly penetrated my brain was ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘western.’ Which is fine since I’ve enjoyed several books of this type and genre before. It wasn’t until I actually dove into the prologue that I realized it’s the story of Alvira “Allie” Sullivan Earp, third wife of Virgil Earp of those Earps. But it’s not just Allie’s viewpoint on what lead up to the famous gunfight in Tombstone, AZ. It’s also a view of the old west that even then was vanishing under the onslaught of settlers bringing ‘civilization’ with them.
Tumblweeds are a staple of images of The Old West even though, as I just discovered, they’re not native to the US at all. Those endlessly moving clumps of salsola blowing across the vast openness of the prairie symbolize the itchy feet both Allie and Virgil had. They both wanted to see what was beyond where they were, to be a part of the next big opportunity.
Family was important to both and often their traveling was to be with one or more of Virgil’s brothers. I found those parts of the book fascinating. They’re like a ringside seat to see a show that’s bigger than life and which has come to embody how we Americans see ourselves and how the world sees us. Mining towns, wagon trains, prairie farming, saloons, cowboys, oceans of buffalo, gunslingers, rustlers, sporting girls and the occasion Indians – everything we think of as ‘the West’ was a part of their lives as they moved from place to place. And the people and places they knew was a roll call of the West: Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane, Tombstone, Dodge City and Deadwood.
Allie had basically already lived a lifetime before she met Virgil. Born in Nebraska and orphaned at an early age, Allie had to work to survive. You show how hard life was then even if a family was together much less if they were parted and sent out to survive as best they could. Most modern US teens have no idea what they’re missing.
"Independent as a hog on ice. That’s you," Virge used to tell me when I dug in my heels over something. Well, I came by it natural, and I wasn’t any different at sixteen and on my own in Omaha. There was always work for anybody who’d do it. I took care of babies, scrubbed floors, waited tables, sold dry goods, and did the washing for the biggest whore house in town. The girls, most of ’em no older than me, made me a pet, said I was no bigger than the cooties some of the customers left behind.
I learned things in that house that served me well, but at the top of the list was Mollie’s advice. I wasn’t about to be pawed over by any man and then left. I wasn’t going to be a body without a brain in it, a doll with a smile painted on to hide the misery. I might have to go hungry, I might not have a place to sleep, but I was damned if I’d ever sell myself to whoever came along looking for a poke.
If I ever get asked where I went to school, I’d have to say-‘"Mollie’s whorehouse."-‘and wouldn’t that get me a look?
And if there’s one thing I take from this book it’s how tough the women of the West had to be. As you have Allie’s mother-in-law say, “the West’s no place for sissies.” Many of the women Allie meets had to survive the best they could and often that meant working as whores – the one job always open to women and sometimes the only job they could get.
Far back as I could remember, I’d known myself. Had to or get tromped on. There we sat-‘four women, orphans, runaways, and at least two of us whores. We’d all seen hard times and misery, but we’d come through. If the Earp men was tough, we women was tougher.
Loving an Earp man wasn’t easy. But they must have truly loved for these women to pull up stakes, again and again, and travel across the west. Love also wasn’t a barrier for them to pain and heartache. Hard times, widowhood, and funerals came to the Earp women. But also bone deep love.
There’s an ache in me still just thinking about that day. I’ll never be done missing that man. Sure, he was a hard man, and tough, and he killed those that needed killing like any good lawman did then and now, but when we was together, he was somebody else, somebody only I ever saw, full of fun and laughter and caring.
The incident that cemented the Earps’ fame, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, is obviously due much explanation in any story about them. From Allie’s perspective looking back at the end of her life, we get a very detailed view of the people and events leading to it. I can’t fault you for needing to include much detail about this event as it is pivotal to the story.
And yet….I found the endless recitation of which cattle rustler did what, and who arrested whom, and who was gunning for whom, and who was attempting to do what to someone else to become mind-numbing by the time the event finally happens. Yes, I think you did a thorough job showing what lead to it but I don’t think you want your readers skimming chunks of your narrative because they feel their eyes are crossing. Readers who want to know all the minutiae will no doubt disagree with me but such intricate analysis might best be left to a straight nonfiction account.
I learned a lot while reading “Tumbleweed.” I came to an appreciation for many people whose names I had heard of but whose actual deeds I didn’t know. I read descriptions of a time and place now lost to us even though it’s become legend. I wish I could’ve seen how it really was. Since that’s not possible, I’m glad that Allie was my guide and that I had the chance to read your book. B