Review of Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin

18 Jan

Tom Clavin’s riveting account of one of the most famous towns in the American west and its two most celebrated residents, Dodge City, is a compelling and entertaining chronicle of a legendary epic in our nation’s history. Sifting through layers of accumulated myth to paint a portrait of the place and the people as they really existed, the book is informative and colorful. Even if its shoots down some of the more fanciful legends that have grown up around both its subjects, it reveals that the wild west was in actuality a place and time richly deserving of the attention it has garnered in American lore.

Author Clavin, a former journalist who has written more than fifteen books, several of which have appeared on the New York Times’ bestsellers list, is well-known for his interest in iconic moments and stories from the American past. From tales from the Revolutionary War (Valley Forge) and World War II (Halsey’s Typhoon) to biographies of sports heroes (Being Ted Williams) and legendary gunfighters (Wild Bill), his growing list of books are a unique take on some of our nation’s most enduring legends. In Dodge City, which I listened to in audiobook form recently, he vividly chronicles the birth and early life of a town that in many ways stands as the epitome of our picture of a western frontier community during the days of the cowboy and tracks the lawmen who attempted to keep some semblance of order within it and beyond.

The main characters in the book are, as indicated in the subtitle of the book, Wyatt Earp and his trusted friend Bat Masterson, perhaps the most well-known law enforcement officials of the era. Clavin tracks them from their early lives and arrival in Dodge City to the later fame they acquired in such events as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona. It is a well-rounded biography at that, shedding light on both their personal and professional lives in equal measure. The book ends up being as much biography, then, as story of a community, and explains in detail some of the most pivotal events of the period in which these larger-than-life figures played key roles. As is so commonly the case with figures of this era, actual motivations and actions in some cases may never be known in their entirety. Clavin is therefore admittedly forced to paint a picture that, while relying on documented information, is nevertheless shaped by his attempt to sift through an accumulation of accounts that have appeared over the years which differ in significant respects. Not being familiar enough with the scholarship on the West to say with confidence how well some of this is done, I can only offer praise for his forthrightness in explaining the process. I can further say that Clavin spins a highly entertaining tale in the book. Dodge City brings to life some of the most familiar names in western lore and the dusty cowtowns in which they made their names.


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