The Kid

Written by Ron Hansen
Review by John O'Donnell

From his 1859 birth in the slums of New York’s Five Points to his violent death in New Mexico in 1881, William Henry McCarty, the notorious Billy the Kid, was known by many names. His was a short life but a long ride, and Hansen takes the reader down every trail. When Billy was four, his widowed mother took him to the frontier town of Wichita. We see “The Kid” as – well – a kid, devouring dime novels, learning dances and songs, charming the ladies, and exhibiting the marvelous ambidexterity that half a dozen years later would doom rival gunslingers.

Diagnosed as consumptive, Widow McCarty moved her family to Denver and eventually New Mexico, where she died of tuberculosis in 1874. The Kid was fourteen. Billy’s grief transmutes to anger and sets the novelist’s stage for the bulk of the book. Uncivilized culture, deviant companions, and impoverished circumstances propel The Kid on an almost linear course from petty pilferer to horse thief, cattle rustler, killer, outlaw, and bounty bait. His death at twenty-one must not have taken him by surprise.

Hansen recounts the iconic episodes of William Bonney’s (another alias) legendary life with the sensitivity of a dramatist and the objectivity of a historian. We see a young man in full: feared and beloved, tender and volatile, self-assured and vulnerable, a person of honor unredeemed in a lawless place where outlaws became lawmen.

Readers familiar with Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will welcome him back to the Wild West he knows so well. The verisimilitude, the period detail, the material trappings of the time and culture, the evocation of place, and the deft tone of the dialogue put Hansen in the company of Wallace Stegner and Margaret Atwood. He has humanized – which is to say both complicated and explained – the legendary Kid.