Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Book Review: "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life And Many Legends" by Allen Barra


I thought for a change of pace, I would try to do a book review on a book that was recommended to me by a fellow blogger, David Cranmer. Back in February, he did a short post on John "Doc" Holiday, legendary Old West gambler and occasional gunfighter. I happened to comment on how refreshing it was to learn some actual facts about the Old West, and in his response, he recommended for reading the particular book that this post is about. I said it sounded like a good book to search out and read.

Later on that week, he did one of his weekly posts on old books, titled appropriately enough, "Forgotten Books". In this particular post he was referring to Wyatt Earp and how legends and myths are born, and offered some tidbits taken from the book he recommended.

I commented on how I was able to get the book from my local library and the first few pages looked really interesting, and that I would get read by the weekend or so. Fast forward about three weeks later, and I just finished the book last Friday (13th).

In keeping with what I stated earlier on David's blog, I will now offer my opinions on said book. Since I've never done a book review before, I would like to do it the way Travis Erwin sort of does his: three things that may turn you on to the book and four things that may turn you off to the book.

Wish me luck.

Three things that may turn you on to the book:
1} Meticulously researched. From beginning to end, this book clocks in at 426 pages. It covers the entire life of Wyatt Earp, from his childhood in Monmouth, IL to his death in San Diego, CA. It also covers quite extensively his brothers, all the well known associates from the time period that you come to know and love/hate, American History from the 1860's through the 1920's, and all the well known events that you've come to know and love/hate. It contains excellent footnoting (each chapter has a separate section explaining all the footnotes) and a decent bibliography that is worth exploring.

2} The Old West/American History. If the Old West and/or American history is your bag, then this book gives you an in-depth look at the old west (specifically the Midwest and Southwest regions) and an in-depth look at the history and politics of the time period (note: Wyatt was a staunch Republican and gun control enthusiast. Also for a majority of his law enforcement career, he rarely fired his weapon in the course of his duties). It also covers Hollywood's version of history as well.

3} O.K. Corral. About one third of the book covers in great detail the events leading up to the shootout, the shootout itself, and the aftermath of the shootout. Basically, what you think you know about the shootout is probably wrong, and this book goes into great detail describing what the actual facts of the shootout are.

And now, four things that may turn you off to the book:
1} Dry as dirt. If you enjoy non-fiction that isn't overly analytical and doesn't read like a master's thesis, then this book isn't for you. I found at times that a meticulously researched book can sometimes make for dry reading. This was one of those times. I did find myself skipping pages because at times it felt like I was reading a thesis. Other times, the book did keep my attention.

2} O.K. Corral. As I said earlier, about one third of the book covers in great detail the events leading up to the shootout, etc. While this can be the one thing that you should pick the book up for and read, this can also be the one thing that will turn you off. It does seem that Mr. Barra spends an abnormal amount of the book concentrating on the shootout (six out of twelve chapters cover the entire shootout, from events leading up to the aftermath for the next seventy-five years).

3} You don't like Wyatt Earp. If you're not a fan of Wyatt Earp to begin with, then this book isn't for you. It effectively destroys any and all other books that were written either by Earp apologists, Earp debunkers, or people who so detested Wyatt Earp that they would say or print anything to make him look bad. If you're a fan of the other people who were contemporaries of Wyatt, then this book dispels a good chunk of what you thought you knew about them.

4} Stuart Lake. If your only impression of Wyatt Earp is what you read in the book Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake, then you're in for a rude awakening. This book effectively puts to rest the notion that Stuart Lake's book is historically accurate. It is in fact, not. I haven't read Stuart Lake's book, but this book gives the opinion (in my view at least), that Frontier Marshal works as a piece of historical fiction, but not as a good biography of Wyatt Earp.
As the old saying goes, this is my opinion, and I'm sticking to it, no matter what. That being said, for a non-fiction book it was a pretty decent read. If you really enjoy the Old West, this book is an excellent place to start your exploration with. On a scale of one to ten, I give it a eight.


  1. It has been a few years since I've read it and you reminded me of several things I've forgotten. And I do believe it's more for fans of the western genre.

    Excellent first book review!

  2. Yeah, I kinda figured Lake's book was over the top. I have it though. Haven't read it.

  3. I guess I'm not a good candidate for this, not being a Wyatt Earp fan.

    Well written review, tho.

  4. David: Thanks. Yeah, it is geared towards not only fans of the western genre, but fans of the Old West as well.

    Charles: I didn't even know of Stuart Lake until I read this book. Not only did the man write a decent book of historical fiction/non fiction (depending on your P.o.V.), but his handprints really were all over the Western movies and t.v. shows of the 40's & 50's.

    Jannie: Thanks for the compliment. To be honest, I'm not that crazy about Wyatt Earp, but I did come away with a better understanding of him just the same.

  5. My dad always liked to watch westerns. He was fascinated by the Old West. Sometimes I would be his movie companion when he watched his favorite westerns. If I attempted to read this book, I know that I would probably skip around to just get a sense of the history of that time. I like your way of reviewing books, pros and cons. I wish my dad was still alive. I think he would have considered reading this one.

  6. Thanks for the compliment.

    I do want to give credit to Travis Erwin for the idea though.

    I like watching the old westerns myself. Mostly the ones where they started blurring the line between good and bad.

  7. I dunno fella...did you not learn about the correct way to do book reviews from my one? ;o)

    Yeah your one is a little better...and it isnt on a childs bath book!

  8. But it is a good book to read when you that piece and quiet at certain points in the day.

  9. I've not yet read this actual book but I've done a few in my time on Wyatt and old Doc - I'm gonna's get this one, though. And your feelings have left me wanting it even more. I am, after all, an old west junkie

  10. That I will agree with you on. I think your blog is one of the better ones about the old west and the western genre I've had the pleasure of coming across.

    This book does make me want to search out Stuart Lakes though, if anything to see what the original hubbub was all about.

  11. Good job on the review! I would definitely take this into account before picking this book up. I do love historical novels and nonfiction.

  12. Thanks.

    Normally I don't try to do this, because one's personal preference in regards to reading material is extremely subjective, and therefore open to misinterpetation.

    Having said that, I may try to do it again in the future. If I do, I'll probably stick to non-fiction, since it's the easiest thing to review/critique.


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