Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mark Lee Gardner's SHOT ALL TO HELL!


Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape (Hardcover)
One of my great great great grandfathers was gunned down by bushwackers in the middle of the White River in Arkansas, so I have an intense interest in Arkansas-Missouri border ruffians. I have bought accounts such as Daniel E. Sutherland's GUERRILLAS, UNIONISTS, AND VIOLENCE ON THE CONFEDERATE HOME FRONT; William Monks's A HISTORY OF SOUTHERN MISSOURI AND NORTHERN ARKANSAS, edited by Bradbury and Wehmer; THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SAMUEL S. HILDEBRAND: THE RENOWNED MISSOURI BUSHWACKER, edited by Kirby Ross; and CIVIL WAR IN THE OZARKS, by Phillip W. Steele and Steve Cottrell. Buyers have to beware because publishers repackage old material by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and S. C. Turnbo with new titles to sell to the innocent. Stories get told and retold until there is nothing new to tell, you would think. But SHOT ALL TO HELL is a great job of telling the supposedly familiar story in an unfamiliar way by drawing on thousands of documents (some of them for the first time), about the Rocky Cut robbery and then the Northfield Raid and the pursuit of the outlaws and the aftermath. Gardner promises upfront: any words in quotation marks were really spoken, according to a contemporary or subsequent account. This announcement let me surrender myself to the comical, ludicrous, sad, grotesque, brutal, and pitiable narrative of one damned thing after another. Who would have thought that a recurrent theme would be the great American one of techniques of self-publicity? The endnotes were a special reward, for they are everything a scholar could want in specificity and (when evidence is incomplete or contradictory) in rational speculation. Congratulations to Mark Lee Gardner on SHOT ALL TO HELL! It's a marvelous lesson in how to work from bits of thousands of documents in fashioning a fast, enthralling story even while saving some of the best satisfaction for the endnotes, where the reader gets to look back and re-imagine parts of episodes under the author's guidance. Seven minutes the robbery took? Seven minutes!

P.S. I posted what follows to a negative comment about Gardner's endnotes but I am moving it up to here, to make it more visible:
Folks, don't be put off by reviewers who complain about the endnotes. Not to get too high-flown, what they do is like what the depositions do in BENITO CERENO. They give you the chance to reflect on all the appalling action while Gardner is guiding you through the archival evidence he working from. You get the great pleasure of revisiting old pleasures with fresh insight. I think I spent as much time in them as with the narrative, and derived as much pleasure, though a different sort of pleasure, more of intellectual satisfaction and less of visceral response to exciting narrative. For some, there will be high satisfaction in the endnotes. Sure, it's a matter of taste (do you want just the story or do you want to look behind the story?). You'll see, and judge for yourselves.

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