Will power: Two tall tales about Buffalo Bill
Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West
By Candace Fleming
Roaring Brook Press
Buy a copy here
The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas
By Andrea Warren
Buy a copy here
Two of our best YA nonfiction narrative authors take on the same subject … and produce two very different, very readable books.
by Brianna Westervelt
Candace Fleming's 2014 treatment of the Russian Revolution, The Family Romanov, raked in the awards and accolades. For her next YA nonfiction title, she decided to take on one of the most colorful personalities in American history — showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, inventor of the Wild West show and, Fleming asserts, modern entertainment. Only one problem: Another much-honored and beloved children's nonfiction author, Andrea Warren, beat her to it.
Now, after a delay to let the dust settle from Warren's 2015 book — The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill — comes Fleming’s Presenting Buffalo Bill. Which one to read? I read them both, and recommend you do the same. As the titles suggest, the two books really focus on different lines in Buffalo Bill’s story. Fleming is interested in Bill the Showman, touring the world with his Wild West Show, while Warren's story is much closer to home, focused on Billy the Kid—er, Billy Cody the Kid, in Kansas, and his young adult life as a soldier.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Fleming’s narrative was the fortune told to Bill’s mother before he was born—before she’d even met Bill’s father, in fact. The fortune-teller said, “You will meet your future husband on the steamboat by which you are expected to return home. [You] will be married to him within a year and bear him three sons, of whom only the second [will] live, but the name of this son [will] be known all over the world.” Placed at the beginning of Fleming’s narrative, this statement sets the tone for the rest of the book and is something that will be consistently (and very subtly) referred to throughout. The legend is born. So what if it's pure hokum?
Needless to say, when writing nonfiction for a young audience, both authors have to grapple with the many historical inconsistencies and exaggerations in Buffalo Bill’s personal accounts of his life. Using a device that served her well in The Family Romanov, Fleming adds an explanatory sidebar to almost every chapter, “Panning for the Truth.” In the Afterword, Fleming makes her frustrations with Will Cody's fabrications known: “Will, as I soon discovered, often mixed his real achievements with colorful fiction as a way of mythologizing his own life. He reshaped his experiences to fit the frontier stories he told his audiences. And he left me no choice but to question all of his claims.”
In the opening to The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill, Warren also cautions readers, when they read Buffalo Bill’s retellings of his life story, that “he struggled to remember dates, places, and sometimes facts.” Bill also “wrote his autobiography three different times. It’s possible that his press agent embellished some of the stories in the last two.” Not to mention the hundreds of dime novels that were written about Buffalo Bill during his lifetime, contributing to his myth and legend. Despite these two excellently researched narratives on Buffalo Bill, it is possible that the world will never know the true Bill, only the mythologized one:
Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill,
Never missed and never will;
Always aims and shoots to kill
And the company pays his buffalo bill!
Warren focuses on Cody's childhood and involvement in Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War, which turns out to be surprisingly rich and formative in making Cody the man. Billy's dad was a wanted man from virtually the moment the Codys homesteaded in Leavenworth County, for they were surrounded by pro-slavery Missourians and Billy's dad was an abolitionist.
Fleming gives ample pages to young Will Cody in Kansas in Presenting Buffalo Bill, but the bulk of the narrative focuses on Buffalo Bill the Entertainer. By contrast, just as “Billy barreled into adulthood” in The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill, so does Warren barrel through Buffalo Bill’s showbiz years. However, Warren's book does conclude with a valuable, in-depth section placing Cody in other aspects of history, such as American Indians, conservation, and women’s suffrage, along with the impact of his Wild West show on American culture and memory.
Quindaro publisher Aaron Barnhart interviewed both Andrea Warren and Candace Fleming for our podcast. Listen