Bonnie and Clyde: the gangster and his moll. The nearly two-year crime spree that captured the country’s attention. The bitter end in a hail of gunfire.
We’ve all heard the story, watched the movies, maybe even fantasized a glamorous life on the run. But really—who was Bonnie Parker?
In Side by Side and Becoming Bonnie, Jenni Walsh writes from Bonnie’s perspective, spanning the years from her teens to her death at the age of twenty-three.
Side By Side tells us the story of the notorious couple, beginning with Bonnie’s attempts to gain parole for Clyde. He’s back in jail after being captured in an escape attempt engineered by Bonnie.
By the time parole is granted, Clyde has cut off two of his toes in an attempt to escape the brutal sexual abuse he’s been subject to. Finally free, he sets out to “earn” enough money to purchase a farm for his family to get out of the tenements of Dallas. To Clyde that means robbing grocery stores and gas stations, stealing cars to evade the law, hiding out in the woods or remote campgrounds—and Bonnie is along for the ride.
But his first goal is to get his friends out of prison. The money from their robberies helps sustain him and Bonnie as they plan to steal guns and ammunition to hide near the prison for the escape. But it seems that every time they come close to their goal something happens to thwart them.
Clyde’s brother Buck has recently been released from jail and he and his wife, Blanche, join Bonnie and Clyde. Everything seems set until the law invades their home mistakenly thinking they are bootleggers. A police officer is killed, one of the gang is shot, and they barely manage to escape with only the clothes on their back. All their money is gone. All their guns are gone. And the law is hot on their trail.
Walsh adeptly weaves fiction with fact to create Bonnie’s story. Her deep research into the Barrow Gang is evident in the detail of their escapades—car thefts, robberies, jail breaks, and murders—Bonnie’s debilitating injuries from battery acid burns, and Clyde’s vow that he will never go back to prison. Bonnie, at first shocked by the woman she has become, embraces life on the run if it means being with her man. She dreams of that life on the farm, working side by side with Clyde, raising a family. Her story is interspersed with her poetry, reflecting her hopes for a better life and, in one case, foretelling their gruesome end.
Becoming Bonnie is a prequel to Side by Side and relates a story of what Bonnie’s life might have been like before meeting Clyde. Her father has died in “the Great War,” she, her brother, and her mother struggle to bring in enough cash to keep the lights on.
Bonnie has dreams. She wants to be a teacher. And she wants to marry Roy Thornton, her best friend since forever. When her brother is kept out of work by an injury and Bonnie loses her waitress job, she finds work at a speakeasy. It’s illegal, but the money is good and for once the bills get paid. She is talked into making an alcohol run with a co-worker, Buck Barrow, and meets his brother Clyde, a small-time thief.
Although she works most of the night, she stays in school, intent on that teaching job. She and Roy marry but she doesn’t tell him or anyone else about her job at the speakeasy. Finally Roy confronts her and she takes him to the club where he becomes addicted to alcohol and gambling.
Their marriage crumbling, Bonnie discovers that Roy has been having an affair. When she confronts him, he abandons her. Unable to keep up with the mortgage payments on their home, she must move back in with her mother and sister. Meanwhile, Clyde has made his move on her and they start seeing each other—until the cops show up at Bonnie’s door and arrest Clyde.
By now we’re almost to the point where Side by Side begins. I won’t give you the ending of Becoming Bonnie, but it sets up the infamous crime spree that made the Barrow Gang a household name.
Somehow, I read these books in reverse order. I suggest starting with “Becoming Bonnie”but regardless of reading order, I highly recommend you both books to your reading list.