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Tough as Nails 

Jane Candia Coleman introduces us to some real Western women.

A line Sinclair Browning taught me about western women: "Some can tie pretty bows. And others kill their own snakes." Both Sinclair Browning and Jane Coleman love to write about the snake killers.

There were a lot of them. The waves of revisionist history that have washed over our views of the "Old West" are there for anybody who wants to look at the shelves of any video store. About every 20 years or so we get a new batch of westerns with a different view, most of which are laughed away by the next generation. All you have to do is trace 50 years of Wyatt Earp interpretations from Henry Fonda through Burt Lancaster and James Garner to Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell. They got closer to reality in Tombstone. Someday they might get it right.

All this went on while those who actually lived there and witnessed things were known to a whole lot of people who are still alive. This is what makes Jane Coleman's stuff so neat. She's one of the few people who writes about the West who actually went out and found those folks, and tells us what the women were doing when the boys were all down at the OK Corral. Her prior biographical novels (Doc Holliday's Woman and I, Pearl Hart) are products of that type of research. It flows over into this batch of western short stories.

The opener "The Silence of Snow" is a fictionalized version of the actual ordeal of Jeanette Riker, a teen-age girl whose brother and father never came back to their wagon from hunting and left her to face and survive a bitter winter in the Rockies alone.

"China Doll" and "Paseo" bring in women of other cultures and do so without the often elitist patronizing of the politically correct. And not all these stories are about the 19th-century West we think about way too much. "Sunflower" happens well into recent times.

In "Renegade Trail" she introduces us to Livvy, an attractive but tough young woman who spent time as a Comanche captive. She weaves her into a great trail drive story and old Texas feud that would make a super western movie if there was anybody left who knew how to do them. There'd surely be a role for Sam Eliott, but after that casting options are a little thin.

Western short stories have a double handicap. The Buffies in New York who determine much of what we get to read don't understand the West and can't tell the real from the phony. The crap they often do print gets rejected by those who know better and they then blame the genre instead of their poor knowledge of it. The other problem is the diminishing market for any short fiction. Fifty years ago there were the Saturday Evening Post and a host of other mass circulation magazines that handled short stories. They're gone--and so are many opportunities for good writers. In the Post's heyday, some of us grew up on weekly doses of folks like C.S. Forester and James Warner Bellah.

Jane Candia Coleman knocks out an adventure yarn that matches either one of them, and then balances that with the intimacy of another old-fashioned value--that elusive feminine touch. If you like traditional western stories, you'll love these. And you'll get the added kick of meeting some of those snake killers.

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