Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Lively, thought-provoking look at showman and his era.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Author Fleming's narrative leads by example in telling a ripping good story, then reality-checking it against other sources (with lots of notes and further reading at the end) to figure out what probably happened. Using William Cody's eventful life as a focal point, she delivers a compelling, vivid narrative of a turbulent historical era, and its conflicts that endure to this day.

Positive Messages

This saga of triumph,  marketing, hubris, misadventure, and often unexpected kindness offers much food for thought. One inevitable lesson: however skilled your spinning of reality-distortion fields, the house of cards eventually comes crashing down, with dire results for your loved ones as well as yourself, so be responsible.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Looking behind the myth of the larger-than-life Buffalo Bill reveals a complex character: deeply loyal,  a decent employer, wildly imaginative, kind, brave, hard-working, determined--and also a colossal ego run wild. Partly due to his own generosity (he supported many family members and others) and partly because of his lifelong extravagance and  fatal attraction to bad business schemes, even the hugely successful Wild West show couldn't keep him afloat--causing creditors to seize the show's assets after the performance one day, leaving hundreds of performers as well as Bill stranded and penniless. From violence to thieving and trickery, a lot of his youthful antics are dicey by 19th century standards and appalling by today's--but, in an era when an 11-year-old is forced to support his family when thugs kill his father for his opinions, choices and balancing acts are hard.

Violence

In the words of Cody's horrified bride, "I knew now that I was going into a strange land where men often killed for the love of killing, where saloons and fights were common, where the life was coarse and and rough and crude." And that's not the half of it. People and animals die by disease, accident, and violence by the thousands here. One of the book's photos features a blurry image of a scalp Cody took from an Indian he killed in combat. Thoughtful 21st century readers may well be shocked by the level of everyday violence. The 19th century was a bloody period in American history, and violence was a solution to every conflict. Buffalo Bill acquired his name for his ability to slaughter vast numbers of bison in a single day. In that climate, violence could strike because you had the wrong politics (a pro-slavery mob stabbed and beat Cody's father nearly to death) or were living in the wrong place (Cody took part in the Jayhawkers, who robbed homesteaders and  burned down their homes during the Civil War). Battles and violent events between the U.S. Army and Native Americans.

Sex

Buffalo Bill's marriage was rarely harmonious, and there's a brief mention of some of the ladies he had affairs with over the years.

Language

Occasional "hell" in direct quotes, such as, "That's a hell of a lot of wind, even for Bill Cody."

Consumerism

Buffalo Bill was a skilled, relentless promoter, and the story offers a lot of insight into clever sales and product pitches -- which may in turn make readers more aware of such forces in their own daily lives.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Booze and tobacco were key parts of the rough-and-ready Western lifestyle;. As the Wild West shows develop a following among the wealthy, champagne flows freely. Cody admits to periods of drunkenness, gambling, and hanging out with bad characters; he awakens from one drunken binge in his youth to find he's joined the Union Army.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West, by popular biographer Candace Fleming (The Family Romanov), traces the rise and self-created legend of showman William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill. The book also examines one of the most exciting, adventurous, and viciously bloodthirsty periods of American history. The era included the Civil War , the frequent betrayal and massacre of Native Americans, who fought back, and the slaughter of thousands of bison.

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What's the story?

In PRESENTING BUFFALO BILL, frontier boy William Cody becomes his family's sole support at 11 when his father dies, and he's quickly swept up in the era's events, including the Pony Express, the Civil War, and the ongoing bloodbaths involving American settlers and the native tribes whose land they took. When, a bit later, he also discovers show business, a legend is born, and soon handsome, striking "Buffalo Bill" brings a highly fictionalized spectacle of the "Wild West" to adoring audiences around the world.

Is it any good?

Candace Fleming's compelling portrait balances the showman's promotional "biography" (which started in his early career) against the historical record, with lots of images to bring the era to life. As she looks at a violent, eventful period through the lens of one man's career, there's adventure, humor, bluster, and heartbreaking tragedy. Presenting Buffalo Bill offers 21st century readers much to consider as they learn more about events and issues that still fuel bitter conflict today.

Author Fleming offers plenty of opportunity to consider the grotesque absurdity of the show-biz Wild West and reality, as in this much-documented scene, describing the death of Sitting Bull:

"Four weeks later, Mc Laughlin attempted to arrest Sitting Bull during an early morning raid on his cabin. The chief's followers resisted.

"Hearing the shots, Sitting Bull's horse -- the gray pony Bill had given him -- thought it was the cue for his Wild West act. As bullets whizzed around him, the riderless pony went through his routine, high-stepping to the left and right, prancing in a circle.

"Sitting Bull and eight of his followers fell to the ground, dead.

"And the gray pony, coming to the end of his routine, stood in the middle of (the) carnage and raised one hoof in the air."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the "Wild West" is portrayed in Presenting Buffalo Bill. William Cody's colorful version of it remained popular long after the frontier vanished. What's the appeal, past and present? What do you think might be left out of the story?

  • If you were 11 years old and suddenly had to support your family today, what would you do? Where would you look for help?

  • If you could travel back in time and hang out with one of the other interesting people in Presenting Buffalo Bill, whom would you pick, and why?

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