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Best-selling author and Creighton alumnus Ron Hansen takes aim at Billy the Kid in new novel

Ron Hansen, BA'70. Photo by Charles BarryGrowing up in Omaha, Creighton University alumnus Ron Hansen, BA’70, lived squarely inside the dramatic backdrop for any boy looking to enliven his playtime.

“We were a little over a hundred yards from some railroad tracks and we weren’t far from cornfields,” said Hansen, a novelist and the Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University. “And one of my favorite gifts from my oldest sister was an imitation Colt .45 cap pistol. So my friends and I spent a lot of time robbing trains and making our escape into the rows of tall corn.”

Those youthful escapades are echoed in two of Hansen’s early novels, Desperadoes (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983) — books that create a rich, incisive narrative out of the historical lives of some of the nation’s most romanticized figures in the 19th century outlaws of the Dalton and James-Younger gangs.

It’s been more than 30 years since Hansen last lit out for this territory which gave him his first successes as a novelist, but he’s back in the Western element this year with The Kid (Scribner, $26). It’s a book giving rise to what he said was a kind of accidental trilogy and also one rounding out the pantheon of America’s Old West antiheroes: one William Henry McCarty, popularly known as Billy the Kid.

Getting back to his old stomping grounds in Omaha a few times a year, Hansen will make one of those trips later this month to do a reading and signing for The Kid. The event will take place at The Bookworm, 2501 S. 90th St., Ste. 111, in Omaha, on Oct. 30 at 1 p.m.

“I mentioned to someone once, some time ago, that I was going to write a book about Billy the Kid and then, I promptly forgot about it,” Hansen said. “But a few years back, at a meeting of the Western Writers of America, someone in the audience asked, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that book on Billy the Kid you were going to do?’ That got me back to thinking about it. As a writer, when you get older, you end up looking back at your career and I think I was doing that in this case. I had a lot of fun writing Desperadoes and looking at the Dalton Gang. I felt the same thing with The Assassination of Jesse James. I just decided it was time to go back for this book.”

The Kid begins in the beginning, with the birth of William Henry McCarty in New York City in 1859, and traces his youth west, following his mother and stepfather.

In New Mexico, shortly after his mother’s death, the young man finds himself immersed in the Lincoln County War, a post-Civil War land and cattle boom coupled with rapidly ensuing chaos in the competition between rival cattle barons and elected officials, all of whom see themselves as standing outside the reach of the law.

Among a cast of thousands in the Lincoln County War, Billy the Kid stands out, Hansen said. Looking at source material for the novel, Hansen said he was taken by contemporary accounts of the Kid as gregarious and jocular, with a propensity for hero worship, looking to the older men entangled in the Lincoln County War as fighting for a cause they believed in.

“I paid attention to the memoirs of the people who really knew him,” Hansen said. “And most of those sources agreed he was someone who smiled, cracked jokes. Women loved him. He was a great dancer and a great singer. In the book, I pay some attention to his sweethearts, all these women who easily fell in love with a sharp, witty, good-looking kid.”

The Kid had his rebellious streak, however, and not without good reason. Hansen said the outlaw legend grew as McCarty drew his allegiances with the Regulators of the John Tunstall-Alexander McSween faction in the Lincoln County War, and rode the county and the state with a posse, looking to exact revenge for the deaths of Tunstall and McSween and other friends.

After a few early scrapes described in some of yellow journalism’s most florid prose, the colorful Kid quickly captured both the fascination and horror of the Eastern press and the legend began to grow beyond anyone’s control. Most notoriously, Pat Garrett — the man who himself tracked down and killed the Kid — said McCarty killed 21 men, one for each year of the outlaw’s life.

“There’s really only evidence that Billy the Kid killed five men: two of those were self-defense, another two were during a jailbreak, and the fifth was a case of revenge,” Hansen said. “A lot of murders get blamed on him because he was such a charismatic figure. He meant a lot of things to a lot of people in his day. Legends are one of those problems in historical research, and the coverage changes from year to year. Billy the Kid goes from being a satanic figure to one who is lionized over the years. His hair goes from black to blond. The stories change.”

Reading broadly in the Billy the Kid canon, Hansen said he encountered books telling good stories in bad prose and bad stories in good prose, and he said he was very aware of the tone his own narrative voice formed. As in his two previous 19th century outlaw novels, Hansen’s novelistic tone is capacious, running from the idiomatic speech of illiterate cowpunchers to the Latinate musings of slightly more educated ruffians.

“I wanted to use a colloquial voice but also give it room to go in any direction,” Hansen said. “Everything from the high-falutin’ to the conversational is in there.”

Hansen said the Kid he encountered seemed to be a likable, ornery, bigger-than-life character who packed a lot of life into 21 years. McCarty, for all the romanticism surrounding his lawbreaking, had a heart for people, especially the Spanish people of New Mexico who found themselves victims of circumstance as the U.S. expanded westward, and the hardscrabble farmers and ranch hands just trying to make a living while corruption swirled.

“This was a fun one to write,” Hansen said. “I found myself fighting with Billy the Kid against some of the people who stole land from the Spanish and tried to run down the honest men. I align myself with the Kid’s side of the argument. But it’s crucial that all this takes place 10 to 12 years after the end of the Civil War, when the idea of taking up arms against someone else was accepted as the norm, even fighting your neighbors. All these guys had blood on their hands. I wanted to try to take a look at how and why.”

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