BOOK REVIEW: THE LILY OF THE WEST
Subtitle: The Untold Story of the Notorious “Big Nose Kate”
By Kathleen Morris
Published by Five Star
Gale, Cengage Learning
A western about a woman, and the word “Lily” is in the title. So, do you find yourself expecting a Harlequin Romance story in the midst of a tale of the Old West?
The title just doesn’t cover it. Well, yes, there are signs of elegance and fine breeding, but Kate Haroney Elder was certainly more than a lily – she also succeeded at poker, at cooking, at horse training. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, (hence the LILY title) she could soothe even the most vile cowboy with her version of “Aura Lee” or an Irish folk song. Self-assured, strong willed, intelligent, and educated in European schooling, Kate could speak French, quote Shakespeare and discuss the Greek civilizations, but then she could also employ a degree of stubborn attitude or use a sharp tongue that had no hesitation in using brash language usually expected from the miners in the shafts of the local silver mines.
Such a strong woman deserves to be the center of a book. Kathleen Morris, through a great deal of research and literary taste, delivers Kate’s story from all angles. With an interesting vocabulary that blends both the literate world of a Europe and an educated lady with the raucous cowboy vernacular, Ms. Morris writes with a strong tone, delivering more than a biography of a quite well-known figure of the Old West. The reader also gets the usual Old West plot lines: gunfights, card games, stage coach rides, and the typical main street towns like Dodge City.
We learn of Kate’s early years, and how she got to be part of those serving Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. We see her struggle through moves that cover Iowa and St. Louis, and then how she rides her adventures to the Old West, including Dodge City, Las Vegas (New Mexico, that is), Tombstone, and several points surrounding. In each setting, author Ms. Morris brings us the sights, sounds and aromas of the wide arena that is Kate’s life. We smell her excellent cooking, we smell her perfume as she woos the men in her life, we see and hear the world of Old West Saloon life as Kate wows the crowd with her beautiful voice and as she deals a mean game of poker. Full of life, this Kate Haroney Elder.
And in all this upbeat adventure, there is a level of tragedy. Angst of a lost family, a sharp tongue and temper, and a seemingly inability to establish lasting relationships with men (spoiler alert: except for one, sort of . . .) color the book with darker tones as the reader experiences the technicolor life of our heroine.
This is a complete, interesting arc in the life of Kate Haroney Elder – and thanks to Kathleen Morris for pointing it out to us.