Summer Reading — Books Fit for the Season, Part 2
- Thursday, June 03, 2010
8. Mark Lee Gardner, To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West (New York: William Morrow).
Of all the legends of the Old West, none has the lasting power of the story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the lawman who chased him down. In To Hell on a Fast Horse, Mark Lee Gardner tells the story more completely than has been done in the past, and along the way he uses the skill of a historian to strip away the legends from the truth — except where he admits that this is impossible.
"You can feel the ghosts as you speed down the long, lonely roads of eastern New Mexico," Gardner writes. "The land is little changed, except for endless strands of wire fence and an occasional traffic sign." As he explains, Gardner has "made the ghosts give up a few more of their secrets."
And the truth is both compelling and hard. Those hoping to find a burnished reputation for Billy the Kid will be disappointed. The truth is that he was a baby-faced, but cold-blooded killer. As for Pat Garrett, he is seen as the prototype for the Western lawman — a man running from his own past with a clear and almost equally cold-blooded sense of justice. The intersecting lives of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett tell the story of the Old West in a way no other lives can. Gardner traces the story from the arrest of Billy the Kid at the end of 1880, through his bloody breakout and escape on April 28, 1881, to his fatal encounter with Pat Garrett on July 14 of that year.
The story is powerful, well-told, and instructive. Gardner concludes with a consideration of the roles Billy the Kid [Billy Bonney] and Pat Garrett have played in the American imagination. Is it not strange that America remains fascinated with Billy the Kid rather than Pat Garrett? With the murderer, rather than the lawman?
The Kid and Pat Garrett are forever linked, and rightly so, in legend, but historically, in the memories of their friends and enemies. "I knew both these men intimately," Sally Chisum told Walter Noble Burns in 1924, "and each made history in his own way. There was good mixed with the bad in Billy the Kid and bad mixed with the good in Pat Garrett. Both were distinctly human, both remarkable personalities. No matter what they did in the world or what the world thought of them, they were my friends. Both were real men. Both were worth knowing."
9. Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory (New York: Harmony Books).
Some stories are worth the wait. Other stories are almost too strange to believe. Operation Mincemeat is both, but the story is true. Students of World War II are at least partially familiar with the story of "Operation Mincemeat," the effort to deceive the Nazi's about the Allied plans to invade Sicily. The espionage operation involved dropping the body of an already deceased man into waters just off of Spain. A briefcase filled with erroneous Allied war plans was handcuffed to the body and an elaborate cover story was constructed — all with the intent to fool the Nazis. The operation was stunningly successful, fooling even Hitler, but it almost fell apart at several key turns.
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