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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review: John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was

John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never WasJohn Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was by Jack Burrows
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm giving this book three stars as an average. At times it merits five stars; at others it sinks down to one.

This is the story of John Ringo, a mysterious figure in the Tombstone, Arizona, Cowboy-Earp feud. The author, Jack Burrows, rightly points out that very little is known for certain about this outlaw and that most of what has been written about him is supposition or simple fabrication. Yet Burrows oversteps it when he says, "There have been more extravagant claims made for John Ringo than for Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, and Buffalo Bill combined." Anyone who has read deeply into Old West literature knows this isn't true. Ringo simply isn't famous enough to compete with the mythology built up around these greater figures.

The shrill tone continues throughout this book, in which Burrows lambasts earlier writers for their inaccuracies and inventions. While they deserve it, it begins to get repetitive. I know a lot was made up, that's why I bought this book! These lesser writers could have been dismissed in much shorter order, leaving more room to talk about the real John Ringo.

The problem is, Burrows hasn't discovered enough new material to fill a book. What he has found is groundbreaking--a family diary, family stories about Ringo, and some important details about his life such as his participation in the Texas Hoodoo War. These paint a much clearer picture of the outlaw than what we had before. He also gives an even-handed, well-cited account of events in Tombstone and makes a convincing case that Ringo's mysterious death was a suicide and not murder.

Too often Burrows fills the blank spaces in our knowledge with amateur psychology. In one passage he states that his sisters couldn't have developed "strong or realistic feelings" about him before he left the family and went to the frontier (p. 139). His sisters were twelves, nine, and seven. Children of this age can't have strong feelings for an elder sibling? In another passage he actually made me laugh out loud when he described the tree Ringo sat by when he killed himself as having a "deep, all-embracing tree bole with its spreading trunks as beckoning womb", reminding him of the mother he abandoned (p. 196).

Ridiculous pop psychology and time-wasting complaints about other writers aside, this is still the only book that comes close to a serious biography of an understudied outlaw. Perhaps some day someone will write a better one.

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  1. Some of your criticisms are a little weak. If Burrows decided to write half the book about debunking myths, then that's what he wrote. It appears you simply weren't interested. That's what a lot of the Amazon reviewers were already saying about it, so you shouldn't have been surprised.

    1. Nothing wrong with debunking myths, but Burrows got very repetitive. A myth only needs to be debunked once. The second, third, and fourth times he slammed other authors he didn't even add any new criticisms.

    2. But it seems the point he was trying to make was a comprehensive debunking, deconstructing a lot of different myths. Are there a lot of books that have done that with John Ringo? In this instance, if there isn't a lot that's actually known about the man, it's better to clear away what can factually be eliminated. That may be what the author was trying to say about the percentage of extravagant claims, as an overall ratio of what we know. To someone like me, Ringo is pretty obscure. The names you mention are all completely mainstream.

      As an academic work it's an important foundation for other research. That may have been the point.


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