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The Kid lives on

Books of the week reviews

He may be the most publicized person in the Old West. And he’s probably New Mexico’s most famous – or infamous – figure of any era.

Author Richard W. Etulain

Alone he killed at least four people, maybe more. With fellow desperados, he dispatched Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. And the gunslinger died when he was only 21, gunned down by deputy sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner.

We’re talking about the outlaw universally known by the nickname Billy the Kid.

Almost 140 years after his death, the Kid is still drawing attention. He’s the subject of two newly published comprehensive companion books, “Thunder in the West: The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid” and “Billy the Kid: A Reader’s Guide.”

The author is Richard W. Etulain, professor emeritus of history and former director of the Center of the American West at the University of New Mexico.

” ‘Thunder in the West’ tries to do two things in one book that no previous author has done in the same way,” Etulain, a Clackamas, Washington, resident, wrote in an email.

“I first wanted to provide an up-to-date, concise biography of Billy, based on thorough research in published works as well as in all the major manuscript collections.” That biography – aimed at the general reader – takes up the first half of “Thunder in the West.”

“The second half would provide an overview of the shifting interpretations (historiography) of Billy from the end of his life to the present. I wanted both of these – the life and legends – in one book. We have had hundreds of biographies and a handful of studies of Billy legends, but not a book that combined life and legends,” Etulain explained.

As Etulain was researching the more than 1,000 books and essays published on the Kid, he decided to write the reader’s guide. “It would provide summaries and evaluations of many of the published sources on the Kid. … That book furnishes comments on about 500 histories, biographies, novels, movies and a few other items,” he said.

Etulain thinks of the guide as an aid to saddling up and scouting Billy as well as mapping out where to start reading on the subject or what to read next.

Taken together, the two volumes, he contends, are the most extensive study of Billy the Kid published to date.

Etulain takes a middle-of-the-road approach to the subject – meaning he examines the bad Billy and the good Billy. Besides discussing Billy’s criminal behavior, the author presents the flip side of the desperado.

More than a figure romanticized in dime novels, the author believes the Kid was in fact a likable, sympathetic person to his Anglo cowboy friends, to the women he met and to the Mexican American families he knew.

“It’s a very complex character,” he said in a phone interview. “He rides life at a gallop.”

Of the almost 60 books he has published, the new ones are the first that Etulain has ever fully devoted to Billy the Kid. In his email, the historian said that the newly released books are not so much products of new information as they are in presenting “different, rather novel, approaches …”

However, he noted that he emphasized the Kid in two UNM courses he had taught and that he had extensively written about him in essays and in two earlier books – “Re-Imagining the Modern American West” and “Telling Western Stories.”

Etulain credits David Holtby for motivating him in writing through the years, including pushing to publish his books at UNM Press. Holtby served as editor-in-chief and associate director of UNM Press before retiring from the press in 2006.

Holtby, an Albuquerque author, said he read the manuscripts of Etulain’s two new Billy the Kid books as part of the University of Oklahoma Press’ required peer review process. He thinks that Etulain’s inclusion of literature and popular culture “adds depth and insight” to the companion volumes.

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Because it was published just months ago, a novel by Peter Meech did not make it in Etulain’s companion books. The novel is titled “Billy (the Kid).”

Meech reimagines the outlaw being thrust in the middle of a bootleg war in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1932. The text in the inside front dust jacket in part asks rhetorically, “But is the legendary gunman whom he claims to be, or is he just a retired dentist with a vivid imagination?”

A blurb by northern New Mexico author Ginger Gaffney appears on the novel’s back cover. Gaffney states that “… Meech turns Billy the Kid into someone we can all root for – he’s humble, awkward at times, and full of heart. …”

Meech lives in Los Angeles where he is a writer, director and producer in TV and film.