IT'S JULY 14, 1905, and Annie Oakley, the sharp- shooting "Maid of the Western Plains," who was neither a maiden nor from the Plains, and Frank Butler, her Irish immigrant husband and manager, are holed up in a Newark, New Jersey, hotel. For nearly two years they've been immobilized by Oakley's paralytic fear, depression, and melancholia. Down in the lobby and out on the street corner, Pinkerton detectives in the hire of William Randolph Hearst keep the pressure on.
Hearst editors all across the country made a bad mistake. They picked up a story by an overly zealous reporter for the boss' Chicago paper stating that Oakley had been arrested there for stealing to buy morphine. By the time the imposter was identified correctly, Hearst headlines had written yellow-journalism history: "FAMED LADY SHOT STEALS TO PROCURE DRUGS."
Oakley and Butler made a mistake that may have been worse. They filed suit against Hearst for $50,000 libel damages instead of settling for a retraction. Hearst responded with an army of detectives. The quintessential sexist, he assumed that a woman who shot Winchesters for a living and traveled with the cowboys and Indians of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" had to have something wrong--and exploitable --with her.
He was half right. There was an ugly 19th-century story of child abuse in Annie Oakley's past and she spent part of her adult life literally trying to erase it by changing her family's name in Bibles and on headstones in graveyards.
That she was successful is clear from the entry in my Britannica, where her family name is listed as "Mozee." In fact, it was Moses, as in the litany chanted by the children at the school she attended while the ward of a sadistic rural Ohio aristocrat: "Moses Poses, Moses Poses . . . No one knows where she gets her clothes-es . . . Moses Poses . . . Got no rag to blow her noses." Oakley obliterated the name to silence her past.
Marcy Heidish takes up Annie Oakley's life--sturdily constructed of fact, embellished with inference--at the point of conflict with Hearst. Over a period of more than a year in the Newark hotel room she arranges for Frank Butler to coax from his wife of 28 years "the secrets between us . . . parts of her life I never knew before" that had driven her into helplessness under Hearst's attack.
It's a somewhat tricky form that Heidish employs and it would be a pleasure to say that it works, for she often writes beautiful prose and her larger literary motives seem wholly commendable.
But it's only moderately successful. The problem is belief. The trouble is that Frank Butler narrates the entire novel, except for lengthy reveries spoken by Oakley. He moves backward and forward alternately--to his meeting Phoebe Anne Mozec at a Cincinnati shooting match, losing to her but courting her as a much older beau and marrying her at 15; then to their touring as a shooting team and eventually signing on to Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, playing triumphantly in the great American cities and before the crowned heads of Europe.
The hitch is that Frank Butler is an uneducated promoter-sharp shooter and Annie Oakley is still struggling with a McGuffey Reader when they first hit the road. Yet in The Secret Annie Oakley they speak, write, and lay out their emotions as though cum laude graduates of the writing program at Columbia.
Here's Annie, as recalled by Frank, offering a clue to her secret while telling him why she doesn't want roots: "'Don't you see I 2 like the moving, the different places, never one week the same? Houses--they don't always bring good.' Her voice had shifted, her face turned away. 'Houses--I know how they can be sometimes. Sometimes when they've stopped. Stopped like a clock, something gone wrong inside. Houses like that, there's a smell to them. A look to them. Houses--I used to believe in houses. Not anymore.' "
And this is Frank, describing Annie's reactions to his confession, much later, that their original marriage was invalid because at the time he had another wife: "She spread her fingers like a pianist reaching an octave, striking the notes, and something shifted in her eyes; no questions there then, only resolution. . . . It was she who moved smoothly out into that day for us both, like a canoe with a tired passenger; it was she who made the inquiries, found the minister, set the time, and before noon we were standing at his door."
Once one becomes accustomed to the unexpected and somewhat interchangeable fluency of Heidish's principal characters, her novel offers much that is insightful and more that is fascinating.
While I can't say that as a result of reading The Secret Annie Oakley I could start up a conversation if I ran into her at the supermarket, the events and conditions surrounding her childhood and public life are rendered in such profusion of detail that one often feels witness to them.
Marcy Heidish captures the primitive frontier America of hardship, ignorance, and disorder from which Annie Oakley emerged. For three years, between the ages of 9 and 12, she was indentured by her steely mother to a workhouse, the Darke County (Ohio) Infirmary, which later sublet her as a servant girl to a family Annie called "the Wolves" in her diaries.
At the infirmary she worked in the basement at a sewing machine for 111/2 hours a day for 25 cents a week and learned "to empty twenty chamber pots for a hundred people in half an hour."
A few miles away at the grand estates of "the Wolves" she was subjected to "educational" experiments in memorizing Shakespeare, her hand was placed against a burning stove for an infraction of rules, and she was sexually molested by the master of the house with the silent consent of his wife and the knowledge of his children.
It was against this background that the "Moses Poses" school chants began, that the escaped Phoebe Anne Moses began shooting quail for a living as a teen ager, that Annie chose with Butler the name "Oakley" from a village sign near Cincinnati. She was the girl that no one had wanted and many, including her mother, had victimized. Heidish makes us believe she never forgot it, whether shooting a lighted cigarette from the lips of Germany's Crown Prince Wilhelm or sharing a box with Queen Victoria. What made her whole, Heidish suggests, was Butler's devotion and her adoption by Sitting Bull as his blood daughter.
The Secret Annie Oakley falls short of Heidish's A Woman Called Moses (1976) and Witnesses (1980) partly because Harriet Tubman and Anne Hutchinson were historic figures who traveled high moral ground. One fought for racial freedom, the other for freedom of conscience.
Annie Oakley did neither. She fought to remake her self. Either because Heidish's gifts have been less forthcoming in this novel or because her subject held less potential for dramatic example, Annie Oakley seems more a figure in a social climate than a woman escaping the stereotype of history.
But beneath this narrative is the same motive underlying all of Marcy Heidish's fiction. Legend, literature, the public record have treated women as apart from men. Wrong. We suffer and overcome and move on exactly the same. We are human beings first.