Henry McCarty (1859-81), a.k.a. Billy the Kid, was a frontier gunslinger, a hunted outlaw, and, not least, the dime-store novel creation of Gilded Age journalists. Since his famous demise at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, the Kid has graduated from local legend into national myth, becoming the subject of dozens of novels, poems, and films. Route 66 and Pretty Boy author Michael Wallis has composed a biography that delineates what is real and what is not about America's most beloved badman.
The boy who would become Billy the Kid (1859-1881) was born Henry McCarty, perhaps in the Irish immigrant wards of New York City. Not much is known about his parents, and it's difficult to trace his whereabouts until his family turned up in Silver City, Colo., in the early 1870s. Both the facts and the legend pick up in 1877, when Henry-already known to some under the alias Kid-shot a man who was bullying him and began a life on the run. Wallis's reconstruction of the Kid's exploits is engrossing. But even more, Wallis (Route 66) shows Billy the Kid as a product of his era, one of profound social dislocation. Billy the Kid was, indeed, only the most legendary of a generation of "desperate men" who knew how to handle a gun. At the same time, a new kind of sensationalist journalism was being created, and reporters were more than happy to contribute to the creation of a myth. Wallis, the host of PBS's new American Roads, writes clean prose, occasionally enlivened by a particularly lovely turn of phrase ("the liquid rustle of cottonwood leaves"). Over the decades, countless books have been written about the infamous outlaw, and this is surely one of the best. 60 illus. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Historian Wallis (Route 66) turns his attention to Billy McCarty (1859–81), a.k.a. Billy the Kid, carefully separating fact from myth—a difficult task, since the myth has all but obscured the facts. Drawing on archival sources and interviews as well as documents and secondary works, Wallis digs beneath the surface, clearly identifying what is known or probable and presenting the reasonable alternatives for what is conjecture. He emphasizes the politics of the Gilded Age and how it affected the frontier and Billy in particular. This well-written and engaging biography is aimed primarily at general readers interested in the West and provides a clear, concise, and reliable account of Billy; Wallis is careful not to make his story so complicated that it confuses readers. Nevertheless, given the extensive research underlying it, the book can stand alongside Robert Utley's more scholarly Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/06.]
Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
In this objective, non-sensationalistic biography of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid (1859-81), historian Wallis (Pretty Boy, not reviewed, etc.), host of the PBS series American Roads, painstakingly sifts fact from fiction. The trail of The Kid runs colder each year. A legal tussle even broke out recently over exhuming his mother's remains to compare the DNA to that of the body beneath The Kid's tombstone. Following the work of pioneering Western historians such as Frederick Nolan and Robert Utley, Wallis discusses this and other controversies surrounding the desperado (e.g., did he have Hispanic ancestors?) before venturing his own, usually plausible, conclusions. Although variously known as Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney, the outlaw was likely born Henry McCarty to a mother who fled Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s. Neither a modern-day Robin Hood nor a cold-blooded killer, The Kid was, suggests Wallis, simply a scrawny ex-New York street urchin forced to live by his wits after the early death of his mother and abandonment by his stepfather. It didn't help that he came of age during a time when a generation of Civil War veterans, often alcoholic and alienated, had access to a glut of new firearms. For much of his adolescence a junior member of a cattle-rustling outfit, The Kid was puffed up out of all proportion as a leader of a gang of desperadoes by dime-story novelists and journalistic hacks. A gregarious sort who abstained from alcohol, he enjoyed dancing and singing and dealing monte and poker to rubes. To be sure, he had blood on his hands, but, claims Wallis, the number of these deaths was exaggerated. Crucially, the author shows how The Kid got caught up in New Mexico'sLincoln County War, a conflict of "greed and corruption waged by profiteers, charlatans and hired guns," where loyalties shifted easily and dangerously. Of more than 50 people indicted during this period, only The Kid was convicted of a crime. Not groundbreaking scholarship, but a sensible summary of a small-time criminal whose short, violent life became fodder for American myth.
From the Publisher
"Wallis writes clean prose, occasionally enlivened by a particularly lovely turn of phrase…. [C]ountless books have been written about the infamous outlaw, and this is surely one of the best." Publishers Weekly Starred Review