Reviews of BECOMING BONNIE and SIDE BY SIDE by Jenni L. Walsh

Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by Bonnie and Clyde, as well as other gangsters from the Roaring Twenties. I also have a thing for American West gunslingers and outlaws. To be honest, I have a fascination with all of the bad guys and gals of history. I’m not quite sure what that says about me… But I can say that I was very excited when I saw that Jenni L. Walsh had written a two part series about Bonnie Parker.

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BECOMING BONNIE by Jenni L. Walsh (published May 9, 2017 by Forge Books) is the origin story of Bonnelyn Parker. Since not much is known about Bonnie Parker’s early life, Walsh was able to take liberties with Bonnie’s story and create a compelling story. Bonnelyn Parker begins as a sixteen year old schoolgirl who regularly attends church, works as a waitress, and dreams of one day being an English teacher. Bonnelyn is also dating Roy Thorton – her childhood sweetheart who is so determined to make a life with her that he buys a house for them before they even graduate from high school.

The only bad influence in Bonnie’s life is her narcissistic and selfish friend, Blanche. It is Blanche who first leads Bonnie into “sin” as she gets them both jobs as bartenders at a speakeasy in Dallas. At first, Bonnie is reluctant to work at a local gin joint, but her family’s desperation for money keeps her working there. Soon Bonnie warms up to her job as she embraces the people, the lifestyle, and the microphone stand. Bonnie straddles both worlds, trying to keep her illegal night job a secret from her family and friends. As her two worlds slowly merge, Bonnie is forced to make choices and adapt to her changing world. And all roads led to Clyde Barrow… BECOMING BONNIE ends with Bonnie and Clyde together as she helps him break out of prison.

What I loved about BECOMING BONNIE is that Walsh creates this wonderful and compelling backstory for Bonnie Parker. As a gangster (her exact role and actions in the Barrow Gang has been debated since the 1930s), Bonnie Parker is not the most sympathetic of characters. Walsh makes her a heroine and a villainess. Yes, Bonnie Parker does bad things, but Walsh gives her understandable reasons for why she does it. The readers might not approve of Bonnie’s actions, but they can at least sympathize with her. Bonnie begins working at the illegal speakeasy because she needs money to help take care of her family. Her love for Clyde drives her to help him break out of prison. Even as Bonnie’s good girl ways slip away, she still clings to her faith and her morals. She also uses her faith and her morals to excuse and explain her actions. What Walsh does – and what few others have done – is make Bonnie Parker into a likable, relatable woman. The novel is also very well written, the poverty and struggles of the late 1920s comes to life in the pages.

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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.

SIDE BY SIDE by Jenni L. Walsh (published June 5, 2018 by Forge Books) is the follow up to BECOMING BONNIE. The novel picks up a couple years after BECOMING BONNIE ends. Clyde Barrow is suffering in prison, and Bonnie is determined to get him out. Once Clyde is released, Bonnie and Clyde try to begin a new life together. But nothing seems to work out. Prison nearly broke Clyde, and he can’t get over what he suffered at the hands of the guards and other inmates to fully reconnect with Bonnie. They are still suffering in poverty. Their dream farm is nothing but a far off dream. The police are after Clyde, and their continued harassment costs him his job. It’s no wonder that Bonnie and Clyde slip into a life of crime. They were practically forced into it.

In BECOMING BONNIE, Walsh created Bonnie’s story using the few facts that are known about the real Bonnie Parker’s life before she hooked up with Clyde. In SIDE BY SIDE, which covers from 1931 to Bonnie’s and Clyde’s deaths in May 1934, Walsh sticks more closely to the facts. While Walsh sticks to the timeline and real-life exploits of Bonnie and Clyde that were covered (and exaggerated) in the news, Walsh creates an intimate world that depicts Bonnie and Clyde as sympathetic villains. Walsh doesn’t try to hide that Bonnie and Clyde, as well as the other members of their gang, did some horrible things – robberies, car thefts, and multiple murders. Walsh does provide reasons for why Bonnie and Clyde did these horrible things. All Bonnie and Clyde want is a farm of their own. A place where they can lay low and avoid the police who are dogging Clyde. The problem is that in their quest to get the farm, they commit various crimes and give the law more and more reasons to come after them. Then, at the end of a long road of bad decisions and regrets, Bonnie and Clyde briefly get their dream before they are gunned down by the police.

SIDE BY SIDE is a fascinating novel. Bonnie and Clyde were small-time robbers and murders, but they captured the attention of America during the Great Depression. Roughly ninety years later, Bonnie and Clyde continue to fascinate people. The majority of what people know about Bonnie and Clyde comes from exaggerated newspaper reports. Walsh digs beneath the exaggerated public portrayal to create a (mostly) sympathetic and (somewhat) likable Bonnie and Clyde. Their crimes are driven by their love for each other and their dream to get their own farm. Bonnie remains likable through the novel, but the reader will question her blind love for Clyde – a love that leads Bonnie into a life of crime. I didn’t like Clyde so much. He’s the one who leads Bonnie into the life of crime. He’s the one who keeps committing crime after crime after crime in a dream of having a life on the straight and narrow as a farmer.

Walsh still does take liberties with the story, though not as many liberties as she did in crafting Bonnie’s origin story in BECOMING BONNIE. Walsh creates numerous minor storylines to run parallel with the well-known and documented crime spree. While this story is about Bonnie and Clyde, the minor characters of Buck and Blanche Barrow also play a leading role in telling the entire story. The characters are all compelling, and they each bring something different to the novel. Walsh shows them all as real people instead of as villains. The novel provides an inside look at Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree that captivated the nation. Also, the early 1930s era comes to life in this novel.