Danger at the Wild West Show

by Alison Hart
Reviewed date: 2009 Jan 6
176 pages
cover art

Danger at the Wild West Show is part of the American Girl History Mysteries series--not to be confused with the American Girl Mysteries series, which are also historical fiction mystery stories. OK then. I was concerned that Danger at the Wild West Show might promote a revisionist secular worldview of history. I found nothing to be concerned about, though. It ignores religion completely, and it does look at history with a modern view of Indians' rights, but there's nothing objectionable. It's a good, exciting kids' book.

Basic plot
Twelve year old Rose and her family work in the Wild West Show, a traveling act that showcases the excitement of life on the Western frontier: cowboys, Indians, trick riding, sharpshooting, and so forth. It is 1886 and the Wild West Show is performing near Louisville when disaster strikes: someone in the show shoots General Judson, who was visiting the show.

Suspicion first falls on White Bear, the Sioux chief who works in the show; Judson is an ardent advocate of the Dawes Allotment Act which would rob the Indians' of their reservation land, so White Bear would appear to have the motive. But when the shooting weapon is found to be a pistol owned by Rose's older brother Zane, he is arrested as the prime suspect. It is up to Rose to prove his innocence.

Rose investigates and determines that it was Mr. Pearson, the minority partner in the Wild West Show, who was the shooter. He was shooting for Senator North--an opponent of the Dawes Act--but hit Judson by mistake. Pearson was hoping to buy some reservation land for cheap, so he wanted to kill the main opponent of the Dawes Act. Rose saves Senator North in the nick of time when Pearson tries to shoot him again. Pearson is arrested, Rose gets her own act in the show, and it's a happy ending.

There are two themes or morals that Danger in the Wild West highlights.

  • The first is Indians' rights. Much fuss is made about the rights of the American Indians, and the immorality of the Dawes Allotment Act which--if it passes Congress--will rob them of their reservation land. The Indians, and Chief White Bear in particular, are presented as noble, proud, loyal, honest, trustworthy, and everything good. In contrast, Rose (and Senator North) are constantly anguished by the behavior of the evil white men who are collectively treating the Indians as subhuman trash. Historical note: The Dawes Act did get passed the next year, in 1887. The Act alloted the reservation land to the Indians individually; the idea was that private property ownership (instead of corporate tribal ownership) would teach Indians how to be civilized and join Western civilization. Any land left over after each Indian man got his allotment would be sold off.
  • The second theme is women's rights. Rose constantly chafes at the societal restriction on women. She hates having to wear dresses; she can't have her own trick-riding act in the show because Mr. Frontier thinks the audiences don't want to see girls performing; she can't speak up but must always act like a lady. And so on. But Rose gets her way: Mr. Frontier give Rose her own act in the show, and the audience loves her. Mama lets her wear a split-skirt instead of a lady-like dress. It's tiresome and hamhanded, but I guess that's the only way to present it to kids who wouldn't otherwise understand the way women were treated at that time.

It's just a kids' book, but that doesn't excuse the gaping plot holes.

  1. Chief White Bear knows all along who shot General Judson, but he remains silent because (as he tells Rose) he doesn't want to get involved in white men's problems. But then he tells Rose who the shooter was, and when Pearson tries to escape, White Bear and his Indians capture him and deliver him to the police. So much for not getting involved. A more cynical person than I might think White Bear is just the lazy author's oracle to give Rose the answers instead of having Rose actually solve the crime.
  2. Zane is arrested for the crime because his pistol was found at the spot where the shooter was. Nobody thought to ask why the pistol was left at the site. If Zane were the shooter, he would have kept the pistol with him. Only someone who was trying to frame Zane would leave the pistol behind. A cynic would say that the story needed some extra drama but the author didn't want to expend the effort to concoct a realistic scenario.
  3. General Judson is shot but not killed. He is expected to recover. But after the shooting, we never hear about him again. Nobody inquires about his health, or goes to visit him at the hospital, or anything. It's almost as if he's nothing more than a cheap plot device.
  4. While Zane is in jail awaiting trial, Pearson decides to try again to kill Senator North. This makes no sense. Pearson had already framed Zane for the shooting, so a second shooting while Zane was in custody would ruin everything. It's almost as if Pearson tried again solely so Rose could catch him in the act and reveal his guilt to everyone.
  5. Mr. Pearson was the announcer for the Wild West Show; he sneaked off during the middle of the show to steal Zane's pistol and shoot Senator North (hitting Judson by accident.) Why did nobody notice that he stopped announcing the show? Mr. Pearson was initially ruled out as a suspect because he was announcing the show while the shooting happened. After Pearson was fingered as the suspect, everybody suddenly remembered that Pearson had not been announcing the show, and marveled over how stupid they were to forget about that fact all this time. It's as if the author got to the end of the story and saw a gaping plot hole, but was too lazy to go back and fix it.

Somebody shoot me. Please.

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