A Wilder West, by Ted R. Blasingame – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 7.34.29 AMA Wilder West, by Ted R. Blasingame

Raleigh, NC, Lulu.com, August 2014, trade paperback $13.99 (258 pages). 

“The range of low granite mountains baked in the prairie’s summer sun, heat waves shimmering into water mirages wherever there were flat places. A ghostly dust devil stirred up dirt in a dancing pirouette while heat-loving cicadas chirred across the plain, filling the air with their rolling song of mating.” (p. 8)

If you think that this sounds like the opening of a Western, you’d be right – except that this is a Western with a Fur, a nude half-human, half-cheetah woman named Citra Kayah. No human has ever seen anything like her before, until she saves the life of Jacob Harrison, a middle-aged showman who is attacked by a mountain lion while out riding in Oklahoma. Jake is dumbfounded, but grateful and in her debt, so he can’t turn Citra down when she asks to join his small traveling Wild West show.

“‘I am far from my home,’ she replied, ‘and I am in constant danger from others like you who would not hesitate to kill me for my pelt. Until I can find a way to return to where I belong, I will need your protection.’

‘How can I protect you?’ he asked, wiping the sweat from his brow.

‘Take me in as a curiosity for your show. It would allow me to hide in plain sight.’” (p. 24)

Jake’s only objection is that he has always billed his show as featuring the authentic Old West, without the stuffed artificial marvels that most other carny exhibits in 1892 boast. Citra is certainly not a traditional Wild West creature. But she obviously is not a stuffed marvel like a jackalope, either. All that she’ll reveal to Jake at the time is that her present alias is taken from the Sanskrit word for cheetah, which is a clue that she has or had something to do with India.

A Wilder West is billed as “A Furmankind Tale”. Readers of Ted Blasingame’s other Furmankind novels like Sunset of Furmankind (reviewed in Flayrah) and Second Chance may have an idea of what is going on. A Wilder West is a standalone novel, told from the viewpoint of the late 19th-century Midwesterners who have never seen a Fur before, so having read Blasingame’s earlier novels is not necessary.

At first Citra is content to be shown in a cage like a rare wild animal. “‘Even if I have to live in a cage and let others stare at me through the bars, I will be safe and alive!’” (p. 30) Her immediate danger is in posing as a big feline in a country where most men carry guns and are used to shooting any large feral animals on sight to protect their livestock. It’s only by staying in a cage that she’s safe.

To say what happens to Citra would give away too many spoilers, but you can see from Elizabeth Jackson’s excellent cover painting that she goes from posing as a naked animal in a cage to a featured star in Jake Harrison’s Wild West Show. After she “comes out”, the cat-woman becomes a figure of considerable controversy. Most who do not see her in person dismiss the stories about her as obvious typical Western Tall Tales. Those who do see her range from treating her as a social equal, to wanting to “own” her as a non-human, with a few religious fanatics denouncing her as some kind of demon. Citra’s backstory is revealed about halfway through the novel, but that doesn’t affect the fact that, as a non-human, some argue that she should be legally owned by someone; or that some religious fanatic with a gun may try to kill “the demon” despite her acceptance by local religious leaders. Or a more deliberate enemy may try to eliminate her, as when her cage is shot up while a rival, Longhorn Tom Johnson’s Wild West Extravaganza, is in the neighborhood.

Above all is the question of how a late 22nd-century Fur comes to be in the Old West, and what is going to happen to Citra as a lone Fur in a human world.   1892 society doesn’t believe in her, accepting her as at best an apparently intelligent and civilized dangerous carnivore who may turn feral at any moment. At worst, she may be declared legally property, or killed – stuffed and mounted as a freak, or just slain as a demon. She has only a few friends at first – Jake Harrison, then a couple of others. Can she live long enough to make more? And what about colleagues from the future who should be searching for her? A Wilder West is “different” in presenting a single furry in a human world, rather than the usual human-vs.-furry social conflict.

And then, about ninety pages from the end, the whole plot goes in a completely different direction.

Blasingame’s main fault, if it is that, may be in setting up, not exactly red herrings, but situations that are suddenly cut short. Extreme surprises do happen in real life, wiping out planned futures and setting people’s lives on completely new paths. The bottom line is that readers will feel that A Wilder West comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

It’s a good mixture of a Western and futuristic science fiction, too. I think that some of the technological marvels that Jake Harrison has never heard of were actually in production by 1892, but only in Europe and American East Coast metropolises like New York City and Philadelphia. So it’s not unreasonable that a 19th-century Midwesterner would be unfamiliar with them. (Remember that song from Rodgers’ & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, “Kansas City”, with the lyrics: “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City; They gone about as fer as they can go; They went an’ built a skyscraper seven stories high; About as high as a buildin’ orta grow”?) Anyhow, if you want to read a real Western with a Fur, instead of just a funny-animal Western like the animated Rango, don’t miss Blasingame’s A Wilder West.

– Fred Patten