The Wild West is most certainly a unique time period in American history to study. Gunfights, traveling cowboys, mining, brothels overflowing with drunks and prostitutes, gambling… All of this today sounds like what someone would expect to find in an Old West film. In all honesty, according to facts and research, it appears movies are fairly accurate in depicting the nature of the time. Author Chris Enss is well-versed in writing about the Old West, namely women who lived during this time, and her latest non-fiction book and winner of the South Dakota Festival of Books, According To Kate, focuses on a rather mysterious character from history, Kate Elder.
Kate Elder went by many names in her life, the more well-known ones including Big Nose Kate and Mary Kate Cummings. What is not as well-known is the life Kate led. During her many years, Kate would write letters, passages, notes, and so forth about her life and travels; however, her writings have never seen the light of day due to her being unable to find a publisher willing to pay her for her work. Now, readers can hear from Kate herself as her life has finally been published to the public. While some of her retellings may not seem accurate (such as her claim to having witnessed the gunfight at the OK Corral) and no one can truly discover what is real and what is embellished, there is still much to explore in history through Kate’s words.
It is impressive how such a short book tell the story behind a historical figure so thoroughly. Enss has definitely done amazing research that is noticeable from anyone who reads According To Kate. Whether the reader is a historian, a fan of history, or someone looking for a new story, every reader will learn something new.
From a historical perspective, Enss has quoted various sources and revealed a lot of information not only about Kate herself, but also about the world going on around her. Granted, there were a few areas of the story that seemed to repeat events and facts from previous chapters, but all in all, all events happened chronologically, making it easy to follow. It is fun to read how Enss will write about an event that happened “according to someone else” and then follow up with what happened during the event “according to Kate.” Normally, the stories differ, bringing more mystery to Kate’s story and making her tale that much more fascinating to read, for who is the one speaking the actual truth?
It is incredible to read what Kate went through during her life. It was not an easy time for anyone, mainly women, yet Kate always found a way to keep moving forward. From prostitution to even owning her own establishment for a time, she did what she had to for money and, if money could not be found in one town, she moved on to the next town. This is an admirable trait nowadays for so many people seem to find themselves in a rut and feel as if they are stuck where they are. They don’t realize that if they were to move on, they could possibly find something better somewhere else, whether that something better is a job, a better relationship, or even a better lifestyle.
From a story perspective, According To Kate may have actually benefitted from being told as a creative non-fiction rather than a chronological retelling of facts. There are brief moments, mainly found within the first couple of paragraphs of each chapter, where Enss writes like Kate is the character of a story. There is beautiful attention to detail written about where Kate currently is in the book and readers almost imagine they are reading a historical fiction book based on non-fiction events. After those couple of paragraphs, though, readers are back to reading the facts. This is a non-fiction book, but it would have been fascinating to read it as creative non-fiction.
Reading about Kate Elder’s life according to so many different people compared to reading about Kate’s life from Kate herself, According To Kate proves to be a fascinating retelling of a mysterious woman of the Old West. While parts could become a bit repetitive and the book itself would have been interesting to read as creative non-fiction, Enss did an amazingly thorough job at giving readers the facts about Kate Elder’s life. It will almost feel as if a reader is witnessing a movie about the Old West, but what they need to remember is that what they are reading is fact. Any reader will benefit from reading Enss’ latest book as they will discover new findings on a mysterious past and will have to come to their own conclusions on whether others were accurate about Kate or if what Kate revealed about herself is the truth.