Poornima writes in:
My husband recently stumbled across an HBO series called Deadwood in the library. It’s a television series set in the Black Hills (Sioux Country – Dakotas and Wyoming) around 1876 and features a whole assortment of historically famous/notorious characters including Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.
I was wondering if you or your readers could direct us to some good historical fiction set in the period that captures the essence of Deadwood and the frontier spirit. It’s quite a fascinating aspect of American history.
Your interest in historical fiction in the same line as HBO’s Deadwood brings Larry McMurtry to mind first. I’d be very surprised if David Milch, Deadwood’s creator, hadn’t read McMurtry. McMurtry’s historical fiction about the American West – Lonesome Dove, Anything for Billy, The Streets of Laredo – is wonderful, and besides sharing Deadwood’s historical milieu, it also shares its tone, that wonderful mix of emotional intensity, brutality, tenderness and humor.
The book of McMurtry’s that has the most explicit overlap with Deadwood is Buffalo Girls. This novel intertwines the stories of several different figures whose lives coincide with the winding down of the Wild West. Calamity Jane – so wonderfully portrayed by Robin Weigert in Deadwood – is one of these characters. McMurtry’s stuff is historically responsible but it is also, as was Deadwood, clearly enchanted with the old West and interested in its mythic, larger-than-life personalities. Anything For Billy, which takes Billy the Kid as its protagonist, tells his life from the perspective of an Eastern businessman/writer of dime-novels.
Willa Cather’s novels too might be of interest. Quite a lot of them are also set at moments of shift from wildness and lawlessness to “civilization” in various parts of North America. Death Comes to the Archbishop, one of my favorites, describes the settling of what is now New Mexico by French Catholic missionaries. Cather also offers fictionalized legends of the American West – Kit Carson figures in Death, for example. I also really like Shadows on the Rock, which is about the settling of Quebec. Cather’s work is a bit more lyrical and literary than McMurtry’s but, depending on your mood, they can be more satisfying for this.
I also have two cinematic recommendations: One is an indie Western called The Ballad of Little Jo. It tells the story of a wealthy nineteenth-century society woman who flees the East and her family, disguises herself as a man and lives as a cowboy in the West. That’s if you’re interested in other artistic depictions of women in the West.
A final recommendation is HBO’s Rome. I know that historically this is rather far afield but, apparently, David Milch originally imagined what became Deadwood as set in Rome at the time of Caesar. Such a show, however – Rome – was already in production when he pitched his idea and so he shifted the setting to nineteenth century Dakota territory. Though not Deadwood’s equal (I think Deadwood possibly the finest television show ever made), Rome shares something of Deadwood’s interest in lawlessness, or a different version of law – a more Hobbesian vision of human society in which power and aggression and ambition have more of a role to play.
Also recommended by The Millions for fans of Deadwood: