Born on This Day: Annie Oakley

Today is the birthday of Phoebe Ann Mosey, born in Ohio in 1860. She later went on to fame as  Annie Oakley, a sharp shooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She died of anemia at the age of 66 on November 3, 1926.

Finding this out made me think – on and off, all day – about a collection of short stories I’ve loved for decades called Annie Oakley’s Girl, by Rebecca Brown. I bought it when it first came out, knowing nothing about it except that it might tell some stories about gay people, and in 1992 I badly needed to read stories about gay people.

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The eponymous story, which opens the book, tells a tale of time travel and cultural appropriation, of borrowed glory, celebrity, love, and mixed messages. What would it be like if Annie Oakley came into the present as the same person she was in the past, then let you parade her around as your girlfriend? Not surprisingly, she would feel special at first; then used; then like an animal in a cage. Nothing good could come of it.

The closer in the collection, “A Good Man,” was a revelation to me in the age of AIDS. I was sheltered from most of this epidemic by geography and circumstance, and “A Good Man” brought it right to me, shattering my heart and teaching me, as a young writer, what power there could be in fiction, in otherness. It taught about the bravery of stepping up, front and center, to say, “We are people. We have lives, and when they end it is just as tragic. Grief does still engulf the people we leave behind because they loved us and we are gone forever.”