Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: "Cattle Kate" by Jana Bommersbach

Chapter 10 of "Cattle Kate" by Jana Bommersbach, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is titled "I Wanted a Nice Christmas".  Homesteader Ella Watson relates the story of the Winter of 1886 in Wyoming Territory, one of the harshest that anyone in the W.T, as it's called by Ella, can remember.  The chapter begins with "We didn't get much of a Christmas in '86", and then tells the story of the lonely cold Christmas that year.  Ella's gift to her husband Jim is a shirt, homemade from saved fabric, and a dinner of jerky stew and a pie from "the last of my sugar...and apples I had canned".  Jim's gift to Ella - "a book of poetry printed year ago in England - it even has a royal seal, which looks very important".  Ella and Jim spend Christmas eve on the Wyoming prairie reading "The Raven", by Poe, and singing "Auld Lang Syne", a tradition carried forward from Ella's Scottish father.  How different, and pure, this life seems.

"Cattle Kate" is the story of Ella Watson, who was the only woman ever lynched for cattle rustling.  Author Jana Bommersbach has re-told this true story from the too-wild West, and gives new life to Ella Watson, whose tragic end is truly heartbreaking.  Ellen Watson was born into a Scottish-Irish family in Canada in the late 1800's.  Her father Tom led the family to re-settle as homesteaders near Lebanon, KS, traveling in a covered wagon and, basically, walking from Ontario to Kansas.  In Bommersbach's very talented hands, we hear in Ellen's voice the hardships of life as homesteaders.  Ellen, the oldest Watson child, meets, marries, and ultimately divorces in Kansas, and then sets out alone to Wyoming Territory, where 160 acres of homestead land are there for the hard-working and determined.  She drops an 'n' and is Ella Watson when she arrives in Wyoming, where she stakes a claim, meets and marries her husband Jim, and feuds with the cattlemen over land and water, with ultimately tragic results.

The first part of the book is written in Ella's voice, and paints a beautiful and descriptive picture of life in this era.  The details, like the unforgettable smells of a chicken butchering, bring this story to life.  The tragedies Ella experiences are heart-wrenching, and the ever-escalating battle with the cattlemen bring a sense of anxiety to the reader  You find yourself wanting to warn Ella and tell her to take this conflict more seriously.

The second part of the book, the aftermath of Ella's lynching, tells us how she became to be known as "Cattle Kate", a despicable cattle-rustling prostitute, all fabricated by the protective press, in the service of the cattlemen.  We learn the fate of the boys Ella was raising, the witnesses to the lynching, and the six cattle ranchers that were responsible for the crime.  While Ella's story in the first section is a historical novel, what follows is enhanced factual story-telling, and adds to the tragic injustice of the story.  "Cattle Kate", we learn, was far, far removed from the real Ella Watson.

The third and final part of the book describes the author's discovery of the facts of Ella Watson's story, and her extensive research notes.

"Cattle Kate" is a marvelous book.  The upbeat, positive nature of Ella Watson shines through in her voice, which makes her horrific end all the more emotionally burning.  My compliments to the author for being able to take us on this journey.  

On a personal note, my mother will be 95 in December, and grew up in depression-era Kansas.  Many of her experiences on the plains are similar to what Ms. Bommersbach describes, although they came 60 years later.  I'm going to pass the book on to Mom to read - I know she will enjoy it.  "Cattle Kate" is a darned good book, a perfectly executed engaging and ultimately tragic true story.  If you're looking for a Christmas present for a lover of mystery, Western, or historical fiction, "Cattle Kate" would be a great gift selection.

Poisoned Pen Press is an independent publishing company based in Scottsdale, AZ, that publishes new mystery books each month. If you're a mystery book lover, or are ready to give mystery novels a shot, check out their website.

Author Website

A copy of "Cattle Kate" was provided by Poisoned Pen Press for purposes of promotion and review.

No comments:

Post a Comment