Thunder in the West: The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid, by Richard W. Etulain, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2020, $29.95

A professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico who began writing and researching about Billy the Kid in the 1980s, Dick Etulain has produced two books this year about the most famous and most controversial outlaw in New Mexico Territory. Thunder in the West covers “The Life” in Part I and “The Legends” in Part II, while his companion work, Billy the Kid: A Reader’s Guide, provides readers (as well as film watchers) with the essential on-paper and on-screen portrayals of the Kid.

In Thunder in the West the author notes that most of the writings about the Kid portrayed him as a violent desperado, until Walter Nobles Burns’ sympathetic 1926 biography The Saga of Billy the Kid, after which more positive accounts showed up. Etulain takes the middle ground, describing the “bifurcated Billy,” one who was part rash desperado and part loyal hero. He, of course, is not the first author to present such a balanced approach; see in particular Frederick Nolan’s The West of Billy the Kid (1998) and Robert M. Utley’s Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1989). What Etulain adds to the mix is a thorough examination of the “multiple legends that have taken root, sprouted, flowered and matured in the nearly 140 years since his death in 1881.” The author insists he isn’t waffling when it comes to his view of Billy, but that “complexity, not the simplicity of villain or hero, is central to a more probing view of the Kid.”

The chapter “Billy From 1995 to the Present” shows that interest in the outlaw remains strong not only among fans of the Wild West but also with the general public. Along with providing kudos to authors Nolan and Utley, Etulain sings the praises of other contributors to the story of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War such as Jerry (Richard) Weddle (Antrim Is My Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid, 1993), Kathleen Chamberlain (In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War, 2013) and Mark Lee Gardner (To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, 2010). He also questions the approaches of the prolific Gale Cooper, who despite extensive research rejects the notion of a bifurcated Billy (insisting he is a major hero), and W.C. Jameson, who believes Garrett did not kill the outlaw and that the real Billy the Kid is “Brushy Bill” Roberts. Thunder in the West has no footnotes, but at the end the author provides an “Essay on Sources.” Also consider his other valuable volume, Billy the Kid: A Reader’s Guide.


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