Friday, May 27, 2011

You can't always believe what you hear (Summer reading #2)

One of my favorite songs is "Pride (In the Name of Love)" by U2. Part of it is about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and it says "Early morning, April 4 / A shot rings out in the Memphis sky." Except a book I recently read says that King was shot just after 6 pm in the early evening. But songwriters are more concerned with how it sounds than dry facts. When I was a kid I think the only music my dad really liked was "Western" music and especially Marty Robbins, and I still remember crouching next to the big old stereo cabinet we had and listening while those records played, singing of the sad and dangerous life of outlaws and gunmen of the Old West. "Billy the Kid" was an especially sad one, saying "at the age of 12 years he did kill his first man" and that the sheriff who killed him had once been his friend. Figures like Billy the Kid and Jesse James loomed large in my childhood mind, and I often wondered about the dusty and violent world they lived in.

To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old WestBut of course, you can't believe everything you hear in songs. To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark L. Gardner tells the real story of Billy the Kid (a.k.a. Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, and William Bonney). He provides background on where he came from and how he became a notorious outlaw, at least as far as is reliably known, which is sketchy at best. He also tells of Pat Garrett, the all-but-forgotten Sheriff, who tracked Billy down and arrested him, and later killed him after a brazen and bloody escape. In the process he corrects a couple of mistakes in the song - Billy was actually 17 when he first killed someone, and he and Pat Garrett were never friends.  But Gardiner brings the Old West of New Mexico alive in a very readable way - the chapter where Pat Garrett kills Billy was particularly exciting. And reading the book you might get the feeling that Billy is romanticized too much, but instead I thought Gardiner was trying to convey how he was viewed by the people, some of whom saw him as a hero instead of an outlaw. The text and editing is sometimes a little uneven and in parts (not quotations) the language is a bit colloquial and salty, which actually kind of adds to the cowboy feel of the book. But it drags a little after Billy's death, and the 100 pages that continue discussing Pat Garrett's latter history could have been shorter. But such complaints are minor, and it's a fun history to read and a great book to add to your summer reading list. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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