Monday, May 13, 2013

Review Roundup: Sympathy for the Devil

Red Lands Outlaw: the Ballad of Henry Starr
By Phil Truman
Roots & Branches, July 2012
$14.95 paperback, ISBN 1620160129
$2.99 Kindle, ASIN B008NYEHX6
208 pages

Nearly 100 years after his death, Henry Starr remains a somewhat controversial figure in the Southwest. One of the most prolific, if not the most financially successful, bank robbers in western history, Starr’s reputation often disappears behind those belonging to his distant relative by marriage, Belle Starr, and to flashier, more violent owlhoots like Jesse James and John Dillinger.

To the people of Oklahoma, though, Starr was — and remains — a native-son celebrity. Whether he was a tragic folk hero or a master manipulator remains open for debate, but one thing seems certain: Starr was a product of his time.

Nominated for the 2013 Best Western First Novel Peacemaker Award, Phil Truman’s Red Lands Outlaw is less novel than fictionalized biography. Truman reveals in a frontnote that although many of the interactions in the book are made up, the framework is historically accurate. Within that framework, Truman does a remarkable job of creating sympathy for a larger-than-life antihero.

Outcast almost from birth because of mixed heritage and descent from one of the families in an Indian Territory feud that rivaled that of the Hatfields and McCoys, Truman’s Starr is unjustly branded a criminal as a teenager. He rides for that brand for the rest of his life, occasionally taking a trail toward legitimacy only to abandon the effort when going straight veers into tedium. Under Truman’s pen, the adrenaline rush of pulling a job becomes Starr’s drug of choice, and it’s powerfully addicting. The episodic plot winds through about three decades of the outlaw’s life, hitting both highs (avoiding execution several times for the same murder, receiving a Presidential pardon, movie stardom) and lows (losing his one true love and his son, multiple incarcerations) as Starr reinvents himself again and again in an effort to fit somewhere in a society both fascinated and repulsed by a living legend.

When Starr finally bows out in what is less a blaze of glory than a tragic combination of underestimation and over-adequate ego, he is resigned to a destiny he both orchestrated and feels powerless to change.

Truman’s storytelling shines throughout, leaving readers with the inescapable conclusion Starr likely would have approved of the tale. The author’s greater success, though, is in nurturing in readers a doomed hope that the handsome, charismatic Red Lands outlaw will come to a happier end.

Kathleen Rice Adams is a Texan, a voracious reader, a professional journalist, and a novelist in training. She received a review copy of Red Lands Outlaw from the author. Her opinions are her own and are neither endorsed nor necessarily supported by Western Fictioneers or individual members of the organization.


  1. I'm going to have to check this one out. Thanks.

  2. I have this but have not had a chance to read it. This looks super interesting, and I know that Phil got the facts straight, being a fellow Okie that he is.LOL Thanks for the review, Kathleen. This is definitely calling me--just gotta find the time!

  3. Both of y'all need to read the book, Troy and Cheryl -- Troy because it really brings to life a historical time and place, and Cheryl because it's about a quintessential Oklahoma bad boy (and I know she can't resist that combination ;-) ). Phil did an super job with atmosphere in the story, IMO, letting readers really feel some of the frustration and longing Starr must have felt. This is another of those books that lingers in memory long after one reads the final word.

  4. Just finished reading Robert J. Conley's THE SAGA OF HENRY STARR, and while Conley has more of a Native American's take on the man, he tells his story without the gentle humor that Truman's fine novel brings to it.

    Nice and well deserved review by Kathleen Rice Adams.

  5. Thanks, Ron! I just added Conley's THE SAGE OF HENRY STARR to my TBR mountain. Thanks for suggesting it! :-)

  6. That book title should read SAGA, not SAGE. My typing has gone to pot this morning. :-\

  7. Kathleen, Richard Slotkin has a big, fat novel called THE RETURN OF HENRY STARR, which has been on my to-read pile for quite a while.

  8. Read it. Well done book. I wondered if Starr was as dumb (??) as he looked, or just an irrepressible optimist who thought he could always think up new ways to do his basic job--rob a bank. I kept wondering why he didn't seem to learn anything (my take, not Phil's). Worth a read any time. Lots a stars (5 is max, right) 5*

  9. Thanks, Chuck. Thought I'd add this to your thoughts. My take going in - I kinda saw Henry as one of those narcissistic people who considered himself smarter than anyone else, that ordinary responsible behavior (including the law) didn't really apply to him. I've personally known some persons like this.