“Bonnie” by Christina Schwarz

Genre: Historical FictionBonnie
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub. Date: July 7, 2020

Romancing outlaw celebrities makes for good storytelling in novels and hit movies.  Henry Fonda portrayed the likable Jessie James. Paul Newman and Robert Redford played Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid.  And in their glory years, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway played the lawless, love-struck Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The real-life Bonnie would have loved a movie about her since she always wanted to be an actress.  In this historical fiction, the author examines how Bonnie Parker went from being a bright, poetry-writing girl who hated guns to one of the most famous hoodlums of her time. At the age of 17, Bonnie married her high school sweetheart, who ran off early in their marriage. Bonnie never divorced. Later, as a bored waitress, she met Clyde. She was 19 and he was 21. She was living at home with her mother and had never been in trouble. He was already stealing for a living with a brother in jail for theft. She willingly traded her honest life for the excitement of Clyde. They came from Christian families who were mortified that Bonnie was still married while sleeping with Clyde. I did get such a chuckle out of that fact. Nevermind their violent crimes. Still, in this novel, one gets the feeling that they were just two kids from a Dallas slum who fell in love and longed for some fun.

The author reminds the reader that their bank-robbing days took place during the early years of the Depression, when most couldn’t find work, making it easier to forgive the wayward couple. Schwarz shows the reader how Bonnie and Clyde were influenced by the public’s fondness for Jessie James and his gang. In a way, they were victims of their time. They too wanted to be loved from afar, bringing a little entertainment to the poverty-stricken nation. They acted as if their lives were being played out on the big screen. We learn that Bonnie never smoked a cigar or used a machine gun; those infamous pictures were taken for laughs. Bonnie was a pretty girl nonetheless, always happy to have her picture in the papers. Plus, it was clear from the pictures that she and Clyde had powerful chemistry, which helped her maintain her romantic view of their crimes. She liked to imagine herself as a blonde Clara Bow. And in reality, even as a little girl, she did have that “It Girl” personality, loveable and attention-grabbing. It was fun for them, and the public, to watch them elude the law. The author makes it clear how easy it was for people to cheer on these unlikely heroes from the safety of their own homes.

We get a sympathetic picture of their private lives. When Clyde’s brother and his sister-in-law join them to become part of the Barrow Gang, they rent an apartment to live in between heists. The women sound like newlyweds when fixing up the place. It is tenderly written how they played house while pretending to be normal people. However, when the crimes became murderous (though sometimes they were charged with murders that they did not commit), they lost the publics’ favor. As their fame exploded, life on the run became untenable. Schwarz skillfully shows how, near the end of their run, the characters’ exhaustion and desperation overwhelmed them. They came to await their inevitable deaths, hoping only to see their mothers one last time.

“Bonnie” is a well-researched novel, yet it never feels dry with facts. Still, as a woman, I felt that I never really understood why Bonnie stayed with Clyde when life got too tough. This was not as expertly explained as other areas of her life. This is disappointing since I thought that was the reason for the writing of yet another book on the couple. Did Bonnie stay because it was about standing by your man? She did believe that theirs was a love story and not a gangster tale. Did she really prefer death in the spotlight to being a bored waitress? Or, as I think the author intended us to imagine, she simply got too caught up in it all to leave while she, herself, was still not a wanted woman?  Maybe I am forgetting just how young she was.  She was killed at the age of 23-years-old. Whatever her reasons were, she would have been thrilled to know that the movie about her fame even had a hit song entitled “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde.”  For Bonnie that would have been the best of eulogies.

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