New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody died 100 years ago next month, and Candace Fleming’s interesting and very readable examination his legendary life is a great way to celebrate him. Presenting Buffalo Bill seems a fitting title for his story, as Bill was often angling for the perfect presentation of himself; always thinking about how events could be portrayed later to further his reputaton and fame. (After an unsatisfying job serving as a guide for General Custer and a Grand Duke from Russia, he inserted himself into a photo of the other two in a sort of 19th Century Photoshop treatment, and reworked the story of the hunt to suit his own needs.) The author even states in the Afterward that Bill’s embellishment of events made research for this book challenging. Fleming turns this obstacle to her advantage, however, by featuring those research difficulties as sidebars throughout the book, labeling them “Panning for the Truth.” The featurettes compare Cody’s version of events with the historical record to estimate the relative amounts of truth and fiction.
It is always tricky to work with a clash of old and modern sensibilties in historical nonfiction, and Fleming does it with skill. She explains how behavior seen as shameful in 2016 was considered perfectly repectable in the late 19th Century, like buffalo hunting. She also deftly manages the job of discussing the plight of the native tribes and their less than fair treatment at the hands of the U.S. government. The descriptions of some of the violent conflicts between the tribes and the military are not overly graphic, but might be a bit disturbing for some readers, making this a good choice for the middle and high school set.
Readers might puzzle over the many contradictions in Buffalo Bill: a friend to the tribal peoples of the Great Plains who served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Plains Indian Wars; an adventurer who cultavated a family-man persona, but was rarely at home and was known to step out on his wife during their troubled marriage; a square man known for his good faith dealings, but who regularly embellished a story to further his own cause; a great money earner who was a terrible money manager; and a somewhat self-centered braggart with a generous spirit and a kind heart. He is an interesting study of a complicated human being, and a true rags to riches (and back again) story.
Presenting Buffalo Bill is cleverly constructed like acts in his Wild West Show. For example, the short introduction is titled Fanfare, and what would be Chapter 1 is “Act One: The Boy Will Cody or “Attack on the Settler’s Cabin by Indians and Rescue by Buffalo Bill with his Scouts, Cowboys, and Mexicans.”” (A quote from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West program, 1894.) It makes an effective structure and easily incorporates the many photographs and engravings from William F. Cody’s life and from the Wild West Show. Also included are a detailed bibliography, a guide to internet resources, source notes, picture credits, and an excellent index.
Add this title to your Grades 6-12 collection, then watch for it on all those best nonfiction of 2016 lists!
Dewey: 978 Interest Level Grades 6-12
Reviews and Awards: Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books starred, Horn Book Magazine starred, Kirkus Review, New York Times, Publishers Weekly Annex starred, School Library Journal, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) starred.
Younger readers might like: Buffalo Bill Cody by Marcia Amidon Lusted
Young Adult readers might like: The Adventures of Buffalo Bill (first published in 1917 after Cody’s death)
Fiction paring: Mayhem at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: A Jemmy McBustle Mystery by Fedora Amis
On the Web:
The Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave Website includes photo archives, research resources, a few on line museums, and a list of cities and dates where Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show played. Students can see if the show visited their town or the towns where thier families lived at the time.
The Grabill Collection at the Library of Congress has photographs of the area of the United States where and when much of the book takes place: stomping grounds of Buffalo Bill, tribal lands of the Oglalas, and portraits of several of the people mentioned in Presenting Buffalo Bill.
PBS New Perspectives on the West includes a People section in which students can find more information about Buffalo Bill and people and events associated with him. This site includes lesson plans on westward expansion, including a lesson on The Nez Perce and the Dawes Act from the perspective of Chief Joseph.