09
May
12

CBR4 #21: Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West by Anne Seagraves

I am a big fan of westerns. I love the old ones–anything with Clint Eastwood on a horse will probably make me happy–and I like the newer ones, like Tombstone and the Coen brothers’ excellent remake of True Grit. I am especially fond of HBO’s (entirely too short-lived) TV show Deadwood. If you haven’t seen it, I’d suggest you run out and get seasons one and two immediately (season three is…not as good.) The show is graphic (it’s HBO, there are going to be boobs), the language is EXTREMELY salty, and some characters require the use of subtitles to get anything out of their dialogue. However, the acting is top-notch, the plots and dialogue are nearly Shakespearean, and Al Swearengen is about the coolest character to ever grace my television.

I told you that story to tell you this one:

Several of the characters on Deadwood are prostitutes. During the first season, pretty much the only women in the fledgling city are the hookers that were brought in to make money off the miners. The actresses who play them were great at their jobs, and they made me wonder about the lives of the real women who made their living on the wild frontier. Hence, this book.

Soiled Doves is not a bad book. It is filled with interesting anecdotes about famous prostitutes and madams of the time. However, I feel like the author glossed over some of the reality of their situations. While she does point out that many of the women who ended up as wild west hookers did so out of desperation, she tends to focus more on the ones who were successful. I realize that that makes for a more entertaining and enjoyable book, but sometimes I felt like the message was “Here’s some adorable stories about prostitutes!” The writing is a bit repetitious, and could have used a more strict editor.

The other problem I have is that while I am sure the author did extensive research, I wonder how accurate many of these stories are. They seem very tall-tale-ish to me, just as the stories of Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp have become more palatable over time (for example, Kurt Russell’s portrayal aside, Wyatt Earp was in reality kind of a scumbag con-artist — still an interesting guy, but not the folk-hero he’s made out to be). The danger of a book like this is while Seagraves does point out the downside of prostitution in the era, she also does a certain amount of romanticizing. I wonder if she would find the habits of modern prostitutes as quirky and their drive to survive in difficult situations as “courageous”.

This is not a bad book to start with if one is interested in the subject, but I think I may have to dig a little deeper to get any real information.

Also, seriously, watch Deadwood. It’s tremendous.

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