Not since Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser have I read a book on the Old West that grips me as much as Wild Bill, The True Story of America’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. Wild Bill (whose real name was James) is a historical character whose story is fascinating and ultimately tragic in much the same way as Princess Diana’s. For one thing, it is impossible not to like Bill Hickok. He was too chivalrous not to like, even love, as so many men and women seem to have, both close-up and at a distance. Hickok favored justice and the underdog. He cared about those in need of help. Hickok was astonishing for his courage and God’s grace upon him during the Civil War. (Advice: Read slowly. Your jaw will drop.)
Clavin’s measured and analytical (without being negative) approach to this biography makes reading it a joy. It seems he wisely wants to avoid the fate of Nichols, the journalist who wrote the 1867 piece in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on Wild Bill Hickok that made the young sharpshooter an overnight national folk hero. (Writers and cowboys share the experience of the rough ride, even if one is more psychological.) Clavin tells how that one story changed the lives of both writer and subject.
Another element that makes Clavin’s book valuable is his sensitive descriptions of people whom Hickok knew or who impacted the change of the West for good or ill. Clavin has a great sense of the right touch. He fuels the reader’s interest with sensitively drawn depictions (starting with the prologue) of people like Davis Tutt (friend turned foe of Hickok), James Chisholm, half Scottish and half Cherokee, a kind man who spoke 14 native American dialects, Calamity Jane (whom Old West TV fans will remember from the phenomenal series Deadwood created by David Milch)–there is a great story of Jane and a loan–General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody and an assortment of unsavory people. The reader will be glad to know about them all. Setting the stage and explaining the co-players is so important. We want to grasp Hickok by the place and people of his era, after all.
The way towns are described gives great pause. The ones we live in today are no way what they once were. Clavin pulls the reader back to a past full of drama and tragedy today hidden by malls and modern streets. Kansas readers of this biography may appear downtown with startled expressions.
I appreciated learning from Clavin that although Hickok tried to live up to the image created (perhaps disastrously) by Nichols, he was true to himself in ways that helped shape society–in my opinion, for the better. (How do we continue to tolerate, or for that matter, produce, creatures like McCall?) I really do not want to give too much away.
I got the sense that Hickok did what he did because of his values. As I was reading, I could not get the comparison with Princess Diana out of my head: both she and Hickok were beautiful, talented, graceful human beings with flaws because they were human. They were daring, loved and hunted. They touched the people of their time and they paid the price for their gifts. Thank you, Tom Clavin. You have done a marvelous job in painting a haunting and moving picture of Wild Bill Hickok and the America he lived in. Thank you, as well #NetGalley and #St. Martin’s Press. This will not be the first book I purchase hardback after reading the ebook version.