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Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life Paperback – August 1, 1991

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Most Americans are familiar with the legend of the outlaw William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Utley, a noted historian of the Old West, has written a scholarly biography of the Kid, which--as does all good biography--incorporates the history of his times. Using interviews conducted with the Kid's contemporaries, Utley draws a portrait of a youth who, while not the bloodthirsty killer painted by newspapers of the period, was not a Western Robin Hood, either. Utley concludes: "Except in its final months . . . the Kid's career did not measure up to his reputation. Although a superb gunman and arresting personality, he was a quite ordinary outlaw . . . ." While Pat Garrett's The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (Univ. of Oklahoma Pr., 1954. o.p.; 1986. pap.) is useful for its contemporary portrait, public and academic libraries serving clients with an interest in the period or the region will want this title.
- Sue Kamm, Los Angeles P.L.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

(Cara Pesek UNP blog 2010-08-06)

"In the last three decades, scholarship about Billy has shaken off its pulp origins and become professional, the best three books, in my view, being Robert M. Utley's Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1989), Frederick Nolan's The West of Billy the Kid (1998), and now Michael Wallis's Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride."—Larry McMurtry, New York Review of Books
(Larry McMurtry New York Review of Books 2007-10-25)

"Utley deftly slices away the veneer of legend to reveal the flesh-and-blood young man a tragic figure who was neither a mythical hero nor a ruthless killer, but a rather ordinary outlaw whose career did not live up to his reputation."—Michael Wallis, True West
(Michael Wallis True West)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books; Reprint edition (August 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803295588
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803295582
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #633,958 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Collier on February 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
For more than 100 years, Billy the Kid has caputured the imagination of various writers of American prose. Most have attempted to fit Billy's personna within the context of good vs evil. Revisionist writers have depicted Billy as a nondescript, somewhat retarded backshooter with homicidal tendencies. Protectors of the "good" Billy the Kid have placed him against the backdrop of corrupting influences which overwhelmed his innate innocence through no fault of his own. Utley has presented a portrait of Billy balanced between these two views.
Utley's "Billy" is a devious yet complex personality whose childhood provides clues to explain his "twisted" existence - an existence shaped by the violent aspects of the American frontier. Billy the Kid's legend was formed during the Lincoln County War although his active participation was limited to 45 months, quite a bit less than many major players. Despite this, Billy manages to command the center stage whenever the Lincoln County War is featured in books, plays, and films.
Lincoln County, New Mexico territory attracted adventurers, vagabonds, hustlers and criminals in substantial numbers. Some of these new settlers fought against the established way of doing business by County and Territorial officials and their cohorts. Thus, began the Lincoln County War which was played across a broad panorama by arrogant, greedy, and ruthless persons some of whom had acquired property and monies by illegal or despotic tactics. Greed and power are a common thread throughout America's history and this tale is endlessly fasciinating without the tragic circumstances surrounding Billy the Kid.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By William C Bayham on August 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
Robert Utley has done a superb job in his factually-based portrayal of Billy The Kid. The work is replete with extensive notes and an exhaustive list of sources. He brings to life the exciting, real life drama surrounding the Lincoln County War and the Kid's role in that saga.
Although Utley is careful not to paint Billy as a mythical hero or leader of men, desparados or otherwise, I was able to conclude from the story that his life serves as a symbol for many aspects of the turn-of-the-century American west and is the stuff of legends. One of the symbols Utley suggests as disturbing is "an enduring national ambivalence toward corruption and violence."
I especially liked how Utley reconstucted the drama of Billy's daring break-out at the Lincoln County jail and the supporting material he provided to back up his account of the bloody events that transpired on that day. I agree with Utley, that although there was exciting drama surrounding his short-lived life, up until that point, Billy had not really done very much relative to others of his ilk to earn his notoreity as the most dreaded desparado of the American West.
Billy the Kid's story is in many ways a tragic one of good boy gone bad and of the difficulties that arise when one finds oneself caught ill-prepared and unsponsored in the transition from frontier to civilization. As Utley concludes, "Despite superior qualities....the Kid met failure at most every turn. He failed because he lacked powerful friends and because he did not shed the wartime habits of open rebellion." This proved to be Billy's tragic undoing at a time when the movers and shakers of the west wanted to rely less on violence and place a mantle of respectability in front of their quest for power and wealth.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By David Ince on April 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Fast moving, action packed, superbly researched and easy to read. A standard bearer for all future books based upon the life of Billy the Kid. Robert M. Utley has been uncomprimising in his efforts to convey the true exploits of the 'Kid'. The author displays an extensive knowledge in this field, and it is hard to fault the texts contents. Plenty of other sources are cited and scrutinized by the author, for further reading and information in closely related topics ie. the Lincoln County War.
Clearly, one of Robert M. Utley's strengths is how well he argues the evidence, an ability he exerts throughout this truly enthralling biography. This only adds to the enjoyment of the book. To be fair there are several areas that could be expanded upon, such as 'the Kid's' earlier relationship with Pat Garrett, but there is no evidence to suggest that this work was to be completely exhaustive. But certainly this book is an exceptional building block for further research and any emerging new evidence. If you are interested in the life of Billy the Kid, and you've not read this book...READ IT! You will not be disappointed.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Mathilda Lückner on January 24, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have been interested in the saga of Billy the Kid and the story about the Linconcounty war. I have read several books on these subjects and must say that Utley is by far the best. You will get a story full of historic facts and that in the same time is a thrill to read. You get a understanding for William the person as well as Billy the myth. A five star book if you ask me!
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Sidney on September 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
First of all, let me say that this is one of the only Billie The Kid/Lincoln County books I have found that actually explain the confusing circumstances around the Lincoln County War understandably. That coverage is excellent, and alone makes this a great book.
Besides that, it is still a pretty good book, one of the better ones, and it gets the truth straight, not filling it up with made-up stories of Billy's heroics (See: "Authentic Life of Billie the Kid"). What it does fill up with, though, is lots of unnecessary background info, which is interesting but makes for very slow reading. Robert is good at going into Billy's mind and personality. I like espcially the way he writes seemingly without bias: you can't tell if he leans towards the Billy-as-hero side or Billy-as-killer side, which is -so- refreshing.
It's slow moving, but Robert gives you the straight story and forgets nothing, leaving no rock unturned. Great for beginning William Bonney enthusiasts.
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