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Bommersbach tells the story of the only woman ever lynched in the Wyoming Territory.

Book Review: ‘Cattle Kate,’ A Historical Novel by Janna Bommersbach

Journalist Janna Bommersbach makes her fiction debut with Cattle Kate, a historical novel based on research into the real life of the only woman ever lynched for cattle rustling in the Wyoming Territory, Ella Watson. Falsely accused by the powerful local cattlemen who eventually took the law into their own hands and were supported in their lies about her by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, she had gone down in history as a notorious cattle thief, a prostitute and madam. She was none of these things. She was a homesteader, a cook and a secretly married woman. Indeed she was in truth a victim in the vicious conflicts between the homesteaders and the cattlemen. Cattle Kate, a name she never went under while alive, is a fictional rebuttal based on modern research to all the fabrications.

Bommersbach is not the first to come to Ella Watson’s defense. As her bibliography and end notes demonstrate, Watson’s story had certainly attracted some attention, although clearly not enough to make her case common knowledge. To the extent that the novel clears her name and reveals the truth to a wider audience, it does an important service. To the extent that her story, the story of a strong, heroic woman taking off from her home and family to get some land of her own and build a life for herself, after an escape from a violent marriage, it makes an important point about the neglect of women’s role in the country’s development. It is a life, though short — she was murdered at the age of 29 — it is a life filled with incident, and interest.

It should make for a great read.

Unfortunately it falls a bit flat. It’s not that the tale is told poorly, it’s narration is workmanlike. It could have been better.Cattle-Kate-coverBommersbach has chosen to write most all of the story from Ella’s point of view and first person accounts can be tricky. The novelist has to create a voice that the reader finds acceptable. Think of the problems many readers had and indeed still have with the narrator in what is often credited as the first English novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.

Pamela is an epistolary novel. It consists mostly of letters written by the heroine Pamela, a beautiful servant girl, to her family, letters in which she details her attempts to protect her virtue from the nefarious pursuits of her employer. She is constantly making her reader aware of her beauty and virtue. She has to, otherwise why would her employer be pursuing her? It is not necessarily a question of self-praise, more often than not it is simply reporting what other people have said. Mrs. So and So said I looked lovely this morning. It is very easy to tire of this kind of thing.

And the problem with Pamela is the problem with Ella. She is the best cook in the territory. She makes the best pies everyone in the book has ever eaten. Everyone who tastes her cooking loves it, and page after page, she never tires of telling us. After a while it gets old for the reader. She is a tall woman, a big woman, but she is clear that she is a good looking woman. “I’m not a beauty, but I’m a good lookin’ woman and I keep myself clean and pleasant.” Not only good looking, but modest as well. Ella as she presents herself, much like Pamela presents herself as too good to be true. There’s too much of The Little House on the Prairie about her, a more realistic voice, a bit grittier would make for a more memorable story.
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About Jack Goodstein