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Reviewed by:
  • The Kid by Ron Hansen
  • Richard W. Etulain
Ron Hansen, The Kid. New York: Scribner, 2016. 301 pp. Cloth, $26; e-book, $13.99.

Of the approximately three to four thousand items published about Billy the Kid, about seventy-five or so have been novels. Perhaps more if self-published works are counted.

The largest challenge for Ron Hansen and other historical novelists writing about Billy is the same for biographers and historians: how is one to tell a believable story about the Kid when so little is known of his first fourteen years, and not much more than controversial bits and pieces about his last seven?

The best of the historical novels about the Kid are Edwin Corle, Billy the Kid (1953), Charles Neider, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), Amelia Bean, Time for Outrage (1967), and Elizabeth Fackler, Billy the Kid: El Chivato (1995). Also of note are Larry Mc-Murtry's Anything for Billy (1988), N. Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child (1989), and Johnny D. Boggs's Law of the Land (2004).

Hansen's The Kid may surpass all these in its careful, inviting combination of historical accuracy, skillful scene-setting, and plausible interpretations of Billy. Hansen's work might be the most historically accurate of any novel written about the Kid. Drawing thoroughly on important Billy books by Robert M. Utley, Frederic Nolan, and several others, the novelist sticks close to the known facts of Billy's life. We see the conflicting theories about the outlaw's journey from his natal New York, through brief stays in Indiana, Kansas, and Colorado, and on to New Mexico in 1873. Most of the book deals with Billy's life in Silver City, New Mexico (1873–75), Arizona (1875–77), and in Lincoln County, New Mexico (1877–81).

Along the way Hansen gives us nearly always accurate scenes of [End Page 123] Billy's actions in Silver City, Arizona, and Lincoln County. We are shown his love for his mother, his alienation from his stepfather, and his tendency to fall in with older, off-track men leading him to thievery—and even murder in Arizona. More attention-getting are Hansen's treatments of the major events in Lincoln County: the killing of John Tunstall and Alexander McSween, Billy's older friends; the Kid's part in the murder of Sheriff Brady, Bad Billy's worst offense; and his participation in thievery and other inexcusable killings.

Billy the Kid interpreters often fall into opposing categories: Billy as villain or Billy as hero. But Hansen provides a more provocative, appealing portrait: Billy the complex protagonist, who can be a murderer, thief, and liar but also a carefree, joyous, and upbeat companion. In avoiding either-or and embracing both-and interpretations, Hansen furnishes a full-bodied picture of the controversial Billy.

Finally, the author's engrossing story is presented in an appealing, straightforward manner. No reader will have trouble following Hansen's plot, characterizations, or ideas. All are lucidly and understandingly presented.

In short, The Kid is a first-rate top-drawer historical novel on one of the West's most-written-about characters. A delightful read. [End Page 124]

Richard W. Etulain
University of New Mexico


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