Wanted! The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid and Ned Kelly / by Robert M. Utley

Historian Robert Utley has enjoyed a distinguished career as a historian with the United States National Park Service.  He has written on more than a few icons of American frontier history, including Geronimo, George Armstrong Custer and William H. Bonney, popularly known as “Billy the Kid.”  It was his success with the last character that really concerns us here, for it is hard to imagine anyone tackling a comparative study including The Kid without being thoroughly versed in his life and legend.  Although Utley is now approaching ninety years on the planet, he still enjoys writing and research and looks for new perspectives on old stories.  This is what led him to his comparison study of The Kid and Australia’s most famous lawbreaker, Ned Kelly.

Although the two outlaws died at the hands of the law within nine months of each other, there is really little to compare between Ned and Billy.  The former was a family man with deep ties to his kinfolk and his country, while the latter was a loner with little attachment to anyone other than a changing cast of supporting characters who rode with him during his short and violent life.  Utley, after a vacation tour of Victoria a few years back, gathered enough reading material to seep him in the Ned Kelly legend and naturally applied it to his vast storehouse of knowledge on Billy.  The result is a three part book.  The first tells in brief, yet comprehensive, prose the story of Billy the Kid from his murky origins to his death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garret in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  The second part of the book gives a competent overview of Ned’s life, based on several competent secondary sources and ending with a review of Ned’s impact on Australian popular culture.  The third part of the book, the comparison between the two outlaws, is somewhat disappointing.  After reviewing the salient points from both men’s lives, Utley concludes that there is really little to compare after all, other than the differences that outweigh the similarities.  I have often thought that the best comparison between an American outlaw and Ned Kelly would be one that examines the life and legend of Jesse James, a criminal who also shot law enforcement personnel and ruled a gang with the help of his brother.  Such a study would conclude, in my opinion, many parallels that would help people on both sides of the Pacific understand why we share such a fascination for these historical thugs.  Although I enjoyed Utley’s forced comparison with The Kid, I really wish someone else would tackle a more apt dual biography.  Maybe you could write it!

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