LITTLE MISS SURE SHOT: ANNIE OAKLEY’S WORLD
by Jeffrey Marshall
In Little Miss Sure Shot, Jeffrey Marshall re-creates the life of legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Framed largely around real-life events and timelines, the novel imagines the world she lived in, the places she traveled to, and people she met or may have met, including Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison and P.T, Barnum. It gives special attention to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the traveling troupe that catapulted Annie to worldwide fame in the late 1880s.
The novel also shows us the loving marriage between Annie and Frank Butler, her companion and manager for 50 years. And it explores, and celebrates, the extraordinary role of a woman marksman and performer in an era - and a sport - ruled by men.
It was late in 1912 when Annie and Frank—or Jimmy, as she always called him, after a family nickname—were living in a small suite at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York. They had a view of Fifth Avenue through the tall windows, and the street was decorated like a winter wonderland for the Christmas season, with lights snaking up and down each street lamp and fragrant boughs set in the recesses of store windows. Automobiles lumbered up and down the avenues like an army of black beetles, and men and women, all wearing hats and overcoats, filled the sidewalks in ceaseless motion. It was a favorite time of year for Annie, who relished the smell of roasted chestnuts in the chilly air and the bustle and good cheer that emanated from the crowds.
Annie and Frank, who was ten years her senior, had settled into a kind of comfortable middle age. They had sold their house in Nutley, New Jersey, in 1904, and traveled more and more, often going to Georgia and Florida in the winter to shoot game and relax in the warmer weather. For many years they had lived out of steamer trunks and made do easily in a series of rented houses and apartments; Annie and Frank’s bedroom in Nutley had been famous for having no closets—it was said she didn’t feel comfortable with them.
Annie was still giving shooting exhibitions and entering contests, and still beating all comers. It was amazing to many—she was over fifty yet as steady and confident on the rifle as she’d ever been. In one contest in New Jersey, she struck every live pigeon released: one hundred straight. But her days of touring with Buffalo Bill Cody were long over, and exhibitions didn’t pay very much. The bills were starting to mount.
In mid-February 1913, a letter arrived from a group calling itself the Young Buffalo Wild West Show. The organizers had nothing to do with Cody, but they wanted Annie to tour with them as a featured act; she would be shooting much as she had with Buffalo Bill years earlier. They offered her a very nice sum of money for the season, and Annie and Frank latched on to it, even though he would have to resign from his directorship at the Union Metallic Cartridge Company to become her manager again.
“Jimmy, they want me! It’ll be like old times in a way.” Annie had a hard time keeping the excitement out of her voice. “We should meet with them as soon as we can.”
“They all want Little Miss Sure Shot,” he said simply, with the trace of an Irish lilt in voice hinting at his background. “You’ll be playing to people who know you only by reputation. It’ll be a new generation. They’ll get to love you all over again.” As Frank smiled, the creases deepened on either side of his mustache, now heavily flecked with gray.
“But I can’t do all the tricks I did back then,” Annie said. “Riding the pony, jumping over the gun stand—some of that will have to go. After all, I’m a middle-aged woman with white hair.” A half-smile played on her lips, thin and unaccented by any lipstick, which she never used.
“Yes, things will probably be different. But you can still shoot the lights out, and that’s what they’ll want to see.”
Two days later Annie and Frank walked under the covered entrance to Delmonico’s, an elegant restaurant they’d been to several times over the years. It was a bracing day, with a cold north wind swirling the branches overhead and sending puffs of snow dancing along the sidewalks. Annie pulled up the edge of her scarf to cover her cheek as they approached the door and asked for the man who would be hosting this lunch.
“So this is the famous Annie Oakley. Delighted to meet you.” Harlan James, the general manager of the Young Buffalo Wild West Show, shook Annie’s hand warmly and did the same with Frank. He made a good impression; they judged him to be about forty, with sandy hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He didn’t have Cody’s flair, but he wore a sensible suit and seemed just plain solid.
James told Annie he had seen her years ago at a shooting exhibition in New Jersey and never had forgotten it. The Young Buffalo show would be traveling daily to perform throughout the Midwest and into Canada and the Northeast before swinging down the Eastern Seaboard in September. The first show would be in Peoria, Illinois, in late April. James assured them that Annie and Jimmy and would have their own tent, a large one, with everything they wanted in it; in the larger cities, they would be put up in fine hotel rooms.
The show manager looked at Annie for a long moment. “I know you’re accustomed to getting top billing, and deservedly so. And so you will.” He spoke smoothly, in an unaccented voice. “But I need to tell you that you’ll be sharing a shooting role with the famous old marksman, Colonel Adam Bogardus. Do you know him?”
Annie gasped slightly. “Yes, I met him many years ago. I replaced him and his sons—they were an act—when I first signed on with Cody. That was probably thirty years ago.” She frowned in spite of herself. “I had no idea he was still alive.”
“Nor did I,” said Frank. “Is Bogardus really up to the standards you want, or he is more of a novelty act because of his age?”
James spread his hands on the table. “Well, he’s seventy-eight now, and his age is certainly part of the appeal. He does look old, and he is, but he can still handle a rifle with just about the best of them. We checked him out last week, and he was pretty impressive.”
Annie took a sip of her tea and glanced at Jimmy, who was slowly twirling his fork, something he did so often that she knew it signaled little.
She asked, “What is he shooting? Clays?”
“Yes, and as you can imagine, he isn’t moving very much—certainly not like you would be. But the clay pigeons are coming from different stations, and he’s proven mighty good at knocking them down.”
“I do remember he had a lot of talent,” Annie said slowly. Then she remembered a previous meeting with Bogardus many years earlier, at the start of her career with the Wild West Show. “What about his sons? They were part of his act years ago. They’re no longer with him?”
“One of them is his manager,” James replied. “But he didn’t mention his sons being part of his act. I guess they moved on.” He stroked his beard and looked at them in turn, his face impassive.
“That’s interesting.” Annie’s mind raced, and she pursed her lips, as she often did when she was thinking. “How do you see my act working? As you probably know, I haven’t done the Wild West-type act in years. My shooting is about as good as ever, but I’m not as spry as I was then, and I really can’t be riding a pony, jumping off it, and blasting glass balls like I used to. I’d need to be more set on the ground.”
“That’s fine,” he replied. “I see you following Bogardus—he would be more of a warm-up act—and being out in the arena for at least twice as long, whatever that might be. But I’ll leave the particulars to you and Frank. You’ve obviously had a lot of success doing that over the years.”
Frank, who had been listening intently with his chin in his hand, spoke up. “Thank you. We’ll start developing something immediately. Do you have a schedule in place?”
“I thought you might ask about that.” James reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a few pieces of paper and handed them to Frank. “As you can see, we’re on the road pretty constantly for a few months. We’ll be traveling by train and possibly by automobile, as need be.” He looked at Annie. “I hope you’ll be comfortable with the idea of a show each day in a new town—that is, with the exception of Sundays. We respect church worshippers, and that’ll give us a day of rest as well.”
“That would be just fine,” she said confidently. “I did daily shows for years when Cody was traveling around. It’ll be no problem whatsoever.”
“Wonderful,” he said, and smiled, showing a fine white row of teeth. “Now shall we order a nice lunch?
Excerpted from Little Miss Sure Shot: Annie Oakley’s World by Jeffrey Marshall. Published by Jeffrey Marshall. Copyright © Jeffrey Marshall 2014. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.annieoakleynovel.com/
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AN INTERVIEW WITH JEFFREY
-What inspired you to become a writer?
Reading literature, and being inspired by great, mostly 20th Century novelists like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and so many others. I went through the complete Sherlock Holmes at age 14 and read it all again a few years later. In my college years, I read through most of the complete works of British writers like Evelyn Waugh, E.F. Forster, D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. I was also inspired by fabulous poets like T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren and Wallace Stevens.
I went into journalism chiefly because I wanted to make a living as a writer; that’s a lot more perilous as a novelist, and I also wanted the social contact of being around others and learning from them.
-What draws you to historical fiction?
I was a history major in college, and have been drawn to historical fiction and historical adventure. It’s fascinating to learn about another era in history by getting into a character/characters and immersing yourself in the very different details of their surroundings. Straight biography can be very illuminating, but it doesn’t resonate with imagination or surprise.
-Give us a fun or interesting fact you learned researching this book.
As recounted in the novel, Annie Oakley traded heavily on her girlish image, and few knew that she was married. As a result, she entertained proposals of marriage and even an offer from the king of Senegal to kill (supposedly) the thousands of man-eating tigers there. Obviously, she declined. Several readers have pointed out that the proper reference was almost certainly lions (there were probably no tigers there), but I came across several references to this request as mentioning tigers.
-Which of your characters would you go out for drinks and pizza with?
Buffalo Bill Cody. He was a character who loved the ladies, good times, and good drink; clearly one of the most colorful figures of the era. I don’t know what he would have thought of pizza.
-For aspiring writers, any tips?
Find inspiration wherever you can, and practice your craft. I was a journalist for many years, and had training in writing non-fiction, but anyone can learn from others. Writing is a synthesis; nothing is probably entirely original, and you can draw from different voices and genres.
Write something every day in you can, and look at it critically. A writer needs the equivalent of a singer’s ear – you need to learn what’s good, and what isn’t. And edit what you write: while everyone will approach that process differently, editing (and especially tightening) are great exercises that produce a better product.
-Is there a genre you could never write? Which and why?
Fantasy. It seems to be really popular, but it doesn’t do anything for me. I like stories to be grounded and relatable, even if set in another time, so something wildly unrealistic just doesn’t work. To write fantasy, you have to let your imagination run amok, and I don’t think I could do that.
Jeffrey Marshall is a writer, poet and retired journalist. This is his first novel but third book, having published a business book on community reinvestment more than 20 years ago and a volume of collected poetry, River Ice, in 2009. He has an undergraduate degree in history from Princeton and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern. A resident of Scottsdale, AZ, he is a board member of the Desert Foothills Land Trust in Carefree, AZ.
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