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Review: Hour Glass, by Michelle Rene
Amberjack, 2018. 292 pp. $15

The Black Hills of South Dakota are no place for two children to fend for themselves, especially in August 1876, barely a month after Little Bighorn. But that’s the trouble that twelve-year-old Jimmy Glass, and his six-year-old half-sister, Flower, face when their father, their only parent, catches smallpox. Jimmy doesn’t know what ails his Pa, but it looks serious. It’s up to them to find a doctor, so the two manage to load Pa into a wagon, for which they have no horse, and sweat the contraption into Deadwood, the nearest town.

Deadwood exists because of the gold strike in the Black Hills, and the miners’ presence defies Federal law, which had supposedly kept “settlers” out of Sioux territory. So Deadwood isn’t merely a garden-variety frontier brothel-and-casino town, but one with defiant vengeance in its bones. And, it should be said, Flower is a potential target, as half Lakota Sioux and developmentally different — she doesn’t speak, won’t look people in the eye, and hates to be touched. When asked to say her name, the best she can reply is Ower. That becomes Hour; hence the title.

C. E. Finn’s 1880s photograph of Calamity Jane (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The relationship between the protective older brother and the emotionally inexpressive sister offers a twist on a familiar theme: Innocent children melt hard, greedy hearts. What’s more, who else should take the besieged children under her wing than Calamity Jane, as colorful a figure as you could want? She drinks like ten fish, curses like a sailor, but shoots straight, rides hard, and takes no guff from any man. In fact, on first meeting, Jimmy is convinced she is a man, a whisper of the feminist theme that pervades the novel:

Her skin was tanned and leathery, and she wore the uniform of a pioneer. If she had any bit of femininity about her shape, it was hidden beneath the layers of buckskin. Her hat was a man’s hat, worn from use, ornamented with Indian feathers. Everything about her had read ‘man’ until she pulled away that bandana to show the more delicate features of a woman’s mouth. Her crystal-blue eyes glared down at me as I froze in place.

Through Jane’s good offices, Pa Glass is put in quarantine with other smallpox victims, where she tends him herself. Dora DuFran, the madam of Diddlin’ Dora’s (no lie), takes in the children, who immediately become the pets of the house. But for me, the chief charm of Hour Glass is how Jimmy treats his little sister and does his best to look out for her. We’d all be proud of a son like him, sensitive, empathic, trying his best to play the man’s role he’s been thrust into when he knows he’s still a child. Jimmy also has a preternatural gift for peacemaking, and it’s hard not to like that too.

But it’s equally hard to figure out how he gained such self-knowledge and skills, for, like much else in Hour Glass, they just seem to fall out of the sky. How indeed would a young boy born to tragedy, likely having no playmates and only one parent who is probably too busy to spend much time on him, seem so fully formed in self-concept and so talented socially? To me, this is the sort of novel that works while you’re reading it, because you’re caught up in adventure after adventure. But after you put it down, you think, No.

None of the good guys ever does anything really bad, and there are no villains, only an occasional badass. Disagreements never leave lingering resentments or even change the course of the story. Though each chapter moves well, once the episode is done, it’s on to the next, with very little reflection. For instance, despite the feminism and good-heartedness that inform this novel, Jimmy never reckons with what a brothel is, or what it must be like to work there. His notions of sex are formed enough to make him draw back in horror at the notion that his sister might be condemned to that life one day. Yet he never connects his fear to the women he sees, which allows him to have unalloyed gratitude toward Dora, who’s profiting off them.

I’m glad Jimmy and his sister get taken care of — nobody wants to see kids suffer — yet I also want them to struggle, to face more prejudice and suspicion than they do, to get into fixes that even Calamity Jane can’t rescue them from. I can’t help think that not only does the author try too hard to protect her characters, pulling back from her strong premise, she has superimposed a twenty-first-century sensibility on a nineteenth-century narrative. Unfortunately, her choice of language sometimes suggests as much, as when her characters use words or phrases like backlash, fine with it, or best-case scenario.

Late in the novel, Jane remarks of her own legend spinning that “folks don’t want real stories.” Maybe not, but the lies have to seem like truth.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.