Bookworm: Looking into a Frontier legend and Chaucer’s people

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter”

  • By Tom Clavin
  • c. 2019, St. Martin’s Press
  • $29.99, $38.99 Canada; 320 pages

Ching. Ching. Ching. It’s high noon in your favorite Western movie, and that’s all you hear from the screen: seething wind and the ching of spurs on the ground as the hero slow-struts to the shoot-out. The music is tense. It’s oh-so-dramatic. And it might’ve been (somewhat) true, as you’ll read in the new book “Wild Bill” by Tom Clavin.

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America’s first, most famous gunfighter was many things: raconteur, sure-shot, scout, gambler, and lawman. But for much of his life, he was not “Bill.”

James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837, the last son of a shopkeeper who was in perpetually fragile health. Little is known about Jim’s childhood but as a teen, Hickok left his family’s Illinois farm in search of a new western homestead.

“Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter” by Tom Clavin

Finding a job was his first task when he landed in Kansas but “Bleeding Kansas” was struggling with issues of slavery so Hickok, an abolitionist who’d by then adopted the name “Bill,” may have joined forces with anti-slavery Free-Staters. This meant for him that “nowhere in eastern Kansas was safe” so Hickok’s brother prodded Bill further west, where he became a stage coach driver and was known for his bravery even before joining the Union in the Civil War.

When the war was over, “The country had changed and [Hickok] changed with it,” says Clavin. Hickok returned to the plains, seasoned and with more of an edge; he’d become a legend, a killer with lightning-fast, deadly-accuracy with any gun. Those, says Clavin, were all things that “marked” Hickok: every tenderfoot around wanted to prove his mettle against the “shootist.”

And yet, Hickok continued to be a formidable force throughout his subsequent law career and his frontier adventures, despite that he was suffering from rheumatism and was going blind. He hid his afflictions well, though – or tried to – and they didn’t stop him from falling in love with a woman who was not, despite the legends, Calamity Jane.

No, what stopped him were carelessness and a good streak at cards …

Looking at the cover of “Wild Bill,” you might expect that his tale is all you’d find in the pages here. Not so: author Tom Clavin also gives a nod to every gunslinger and scout of Hickok’s time, and if that’s not catnip to Western fans, nothing is.

Indeed, this book sweeps cross-country, around Indian villages and through decades as it busts myths and sets records straight, pulling readers into cowtowns and across prairies and putting mistruths to rest. We get dusty details, too – things like the accounts of the gushing idolization given to Hickok, and jaw-dropping tales of frontier exploits, whether they were true or not. That allows this to be more than strictly a history book: Clavin can also make this tale seem as comfortable as a Saturday afternoon sofa-and-blanket-session with an old black-and-white western.

Absolutely, “Wild Bill” is for fans of the Wild West, and it should also speak to anyone who likes frontier adventure. Look at that cover again. It should spur you to action.

“Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England”

  • By Liza Picard
  • c. 2017, W.W. Norton
  • $27.95, $36.95 Canada; 341 pages

The guy in the car next to yours is a total stranger. Sure, he might look familiar to you, but you really know very little about him. He drives a nice car, but his name is a mystery. You have no clue about his diet, destination, or his occupation. He’s just some guy going in the same direction as you, but as in “Chaucer’s People” by Liza Picard, his details might surprise you.

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If you’ve ever been on a cruise or tour, you know what it’s like to travel with strangers. In the late 14th century, author Geoffrey Chaucer imagined that situation in The Canterbury Tales, a poem about 30 random travelers who share their stories with one another on a journey to the city.

“Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England” by Liza Picard.

As with every story, there’s more than meets the eye.

Chaucer likely believed that his audience would automatically assume any pertinent background related to his travelers, never figuring that readers six centuries later might scratch their heads. Enter Liza Picard, who starts her life-behind-the-scenes look with the Wife of Bath, who seemed to flaunt her wealth with “scarlet red” stockings, an article of clothing unaffordable for most Canterbury residents.

The miller probably would have taken note of the weather, says Picard; knowledge of conditions “was vital” to his profession. Meteorological forecasting then came from salt, sounds, cabbage or the “activity of fleas.”

It may surprise modern readers that 14th-century Londoners used sophisticated banking and lending methods, and Chaucer’s merchant would’ve been no exception. In addition to money management, the merchant might have participated in the wool trade, says Picard, since wool was the most-exported material in 1350.

That may’ve been welcome news to the nun, or prioress, as Chaucer calls her. Surely, she discussed wool garments with the merchant, perhaps with great delight. Though she’d likely been sent to the convent because she was an upper-class “surplus daughter,” she wasn’t left alone there: rich women sent to nunneries often brought along servants, pets, and entire wardrobes …

Haunted by memories of brittle lectures, musty books, and tongue-twisty languages from long-ago classes? Forget that – and find “Chaucer’s People.”

To be sure, this is the kind of book you want if you love to travel or people-watch: author Liza Picard takes Chaucer’s Tales and, through the clues he offered in his poem, explains how his pilgrims lived, worked, and survived.

While that tugs at the imagination, it’s not flighty.

Picard bases any speculation in historical context, giving readers hard facts that allow for comparisons to modern times. There’s delight in that, especially for astute readers who’ll pounce on the day-to-day minutiae of being a fourteenth-century citizen and can imagine themselves living in that time.

Best hope you were wealthy then, and not a pauper or apprentice, that’s all.

Though it lacks in background on the poem itself, you’ll love this book for its peek at how the Other Half lived. Available now in the U.S., for history buffs and those who like guessing at the lives of strangers, “Chaucer’s People” is a real trip.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.