Review: ‘Buffaloed’ by Fairlee Winfield

Buffaloed Buffaloed by Fairlee Winfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When teenager Ovidia Odegard arrives in the United States in 1904, her first duty is to find suitable work so she can begin paying back her uncle for his out-of-pocket costs in sponsoring her immigration from Norway. Her dream, though is not only to be an American, but a Westerner, and that includes wearing a fancy buckskin jacket.

Providentially, Nancy Russell–the wife of the famed Montana cowboy artist Charles M. Russell–is looking for a housemaid at the couple’s home in Great Falls. When Ovida sees a copy of Russell’s pictorial “Studies of Western Life,” she can’t wait to board the train and head for the West she’s seen at the Nickelodeon.

When she arrives in Great Falls, she finds a dirty, modern city, and once she meets Charlie Russell, she begins discovering that the idealized West as it exists in books and movies is gone–if it ever existed. While Nancy Russell wants contracts and sales for Charlie’s art, Charlie would rather spend his time spinning yarns about the old days with his “bunch” down at the saloon. Not surprisingly, the house is a mess.

“Buffaloed” is Ovidia’s story as told to her grandson just before she died at 94, and it all begins when she mentions a secret she has never shared with anyone: the famous Charles M. Russell mural “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Indians at Ross’ Hole” at the Montana State House of Representatives” wasn’t really painted by Russell. It was a con, or so Ovidia claims.

Ovidia dangles this con before her grandson’s eyes throughout her remembrances because, as she sees it, he wouldn’t understand it if he didn’t know what happened in the Russell household from the moment she reported for work. What had she gotten herself into?

This well-researched book is just the kind of yarn that the master of tall tales, one Charles Marion Russell (1862-1926), would endorse without hesitation. The dialogue, the atmosphere, and the historical period in “Buffaloed” are superb. Fans of Russell and Montana history will discover that the book includes real events and places along with a supporting cast of historical personages.

In his book “Montana Adventure,” a friend and contemporary of Russell, Frank B. Linderman, writes that “Charlie Russell was the most lovable man I have ever known.” This is the Charlie Russell who emerges in Fairlee Winfield’s wonderful novel.

Now, if you live in Montana, mostly everything having to do with Charlie Russell is sacred, and that includes a lot of living and story telling that was also delightfully profane. Ovidia does have a confession to make in regard to that mural, but this is a novel, of course.

Winfield’s disclaimer at the beginning of the book reminds us that “Buffaloed” is a work of fiction. In addition to the standard reference books about Charles and Nancy Russell, Winfield also had a more personal resource for this story: her Norwegian grandmother did work in the artist’s home and had a lot of humorous and gritty stories to tell.

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Copyright (c) by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “The Sun Singer” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”