Book tackles legend of Billy the Kid
November 20, 2008 - 5:00 am
Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, William Antrim, Kid Antrim, El Chivato, William H. Bonney — aka Billy the Kid.
Much mystery surrounds this legendary 19th-century cowboy, who it’s said killed 21 men, one for each year of his life. The young cattle rustler often is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer who robbed trains and banks, murdering anyone who got in his way.
In “Lucky Billy,” author John Vernon consults newspaper accounts, personal correspondence and the historical record to craft his own tale of the life and times of Billy the Kid.
Going into the novel I didn’t know much about Billy, but after I finished I did some of my own research. “Lucky Billy” does indeed draw on the historic record. Vernon uses direct quotes from witness accounts and letters to flesh out his story. Since there were multiple Billy the Kids all over the West in the late 1800s, it’s hard for any expert to sort fact from fiction, but Vernon paints a believable portrait of a boy who got in way over his head.
Vernon explores Billy’s childhood in New York, growing up essentially a street urchin stealing food to survive, and his painful relationship with his mother and stepfather.
The author goes into great detail explaining the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, stemming from the power struggle between an Irish gang and English entrepreneur John Tunstall, whose murder ultimately puts Billy on the path to revenge.
The historic background of this book is indeed interesting, but it’s the smaller details that impressed me most.
Vernon’s portrayal of the West seems far more realistic than most history books, which mostly include cowboys and Indians. He recognizes the large population of Mexicans, many of whom were sympathetic to Billy and protected him. Vernon also acknowledges the presence of the Buffalo Soldiers, black regiments of the U.S. Army, sent to keep peace in this lawless land.
Along with the territory, Vernon gives Billy depth. The young man isn’t simply a killer. It’s easy to lose sight of the ages of all the parties involved, but they were mostly young men. Billy learned as a teen that he was living in a kill-or-be-killed time. Sometimes he had regrets, sometimes not. Vernon seems sure the Kid did not rob trains or banks and only participated in rustling as a way to survive, which seems to be the consensus in what I’ve read.
Of course, the truth of legend usually lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s where Vernon leaves Billy.
“I’m sick of all the fighting. It still gets to me, though. You wouldn’t know it sometimes because I make a lot of jokes. I’m not really a killer. I may be a general spiteful fellow, I’ve never been satisfied anywhere I was, but I have got some pride. These newspapers don’t know the first thing about me. ‘He will go down in history.’ Well, if that’s true, they better get it right. I’m not a cold-blooded tough. I want things to square up, that’s all I want.”
“Lucky Billy” does square things up. It’s an engaging novel that teaches about the development of the West as it keeps readers entertained. That’s sure an easy way to learn.