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 Texas : Features : Book Reviews

Book Review
Running with
Bonnie and Clyde
:
The 10 Fast Years of Ralph Fults

by John Neal Phillips
University of Oklahoma Press 1996


Reviewed by John Troesser
The title doesn't mean he spent ten years running with Bonnie and Clyde, it means that Ralph had 10 fast years. Bonnie and Clyde only lasted about 27 months start to finish. They lived fast, loved hard and died young, but the corpses they left behind were far from beautiful. See what happens when you go to Louisiana. Bonnie never saw her 25th birthday.

Ralph came from the same North Texas beginnings as Ray Hamilton and Clyde Barrow. Mr. Phillips suggests that witnessing a hanging at the Collin County Jail in his childhood might've had an affect on Ralph, since he came from a solid family. Ralph was from tiny Anna (Collin County), while Ray and Clyde were boyhood friends in West Dallas, an area so bad in the 30s they tore it down and put in a slum.

Frankly, we thought we had had our fill reading about the Barrow-Parker gang. We picked up this book to verify a robbery in Cedar Hill and became entranced by the author's crisp and methodical storytelling.

It's easy to detect a sympathetic tone, but through his detailed accounts, the reader cannot help but see that the clichés of reformatories being prep schools and penitentiaries being finishing schools for criminals were facts of life in the 1930s. Clichés, like generalizations, usually come from somewhere.

The brutality of the old prison system and the cheapness of life partially explain the desperation of the male gang members. But it also raises the question of why, after escaping, they wouldn't pull just one last job and move out of state rather than risk returning to the barbaric, brutal conditions of Eastland or Huntsville.

Some of the myths are explained, while others are shattered. Blanche Barrow, Clyde's sister-in-law, died of cancer in 1988 and Fults fell to cancer in 1992. Fults (after his release) actually helped pass legislation that drastically and humanely altered the way the system did business. His parole became a contribution.

The reader is also introduced to characters that could be the subjects of their own books. One of which was "Uncle Bud" Russell who drove the Huntsville Prison Bus (actually a converted truck), transporting over 115,000 men to jail during his career and logging more than 3,250,000 miles. That's right, over 3 million.

What's left out of many histories is the incredible array of wounds and injuries that the gang had received. When Clyde drove the car over a bridge that was out, and into the Red River bank (see Red River Plunge Bridge), Bonnie sustained burns on her leg and back that required her to walk with a cane up until the day of her death. In one particular firefight, both Bonnie and Clyde had bullets through both knees and only learned of them when they attempted to walk. Buck's head wound from Joplin left him with a hole that exposed his brain. Ironically he died of pneumonia after an infection caused by removing a sliver of bullet from his chest.

Fults survived 3 prison escapes, gunshots, numerous car crashes (2 in a five day period), stabbings, and prison beatings yet lived until 1992. Hamilton experienced more of the same, except for the electrical charge that he never got over. Only Gary Gilmore made a more sporting departure than Ray Hamilton.

The book would interest the curious reader if only for the weight of the story. The underlining social issues and psychological observations are lagniappe. It should be required reading for those seeking careers in criminal justice.


The Rabbit in Winter

Comic relief is in short supply, but it is there. Bonnie was furious that the photo of her smoking a cigar was taken for truth. Barrow did give kidnapping victims bus fare home and Bonnie's Easter present to her mother was a rabbit named Sonny Boy. Now, Clyde didn't like Sonny Boy's smell, so he bathed him and the rabbit seemingly went into a coma from the cold. Bonnie was heartbroken, so Clyde pulled over, built a fire and defrosted the limp lagamorph just a day before he was presented to Mrs. Parker.

Family reunions were arranged by having a soda bottle thrown into Mrs. Barrow's yard. She would tsk-tsk at the inconsiderate litterers and then fish the message out. She would then call the Parkers and invite them over for "Red Beans." Bonnie loved red beans and so that was the chosen code word for a visit.

One of the details, which we've never seen in print, is that the Bonnie and Clyde death car (on the local sheriff's request) was towed in front of the local High School and the children were shown the corpses as an example. Ringgold, Louisiana students had a good answer for "What did you learn in school today?"

The reason for the fascination with the Barrow-Parker gang is, of course, their highly condensed and volatile lives, the timeless themes of good versus evil, instant gratification and youthful rebellion all set before the backdrop of class distinction, hopeless futures and Modern Times. The subject will continue to create interest and fifty years from now, this book will still be quoted and referred to in bibliographies of lesser books.

© John Troesser
First published August, 2000
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