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Bookworm: Absolutely! Historians will want ‘Butch Cassidy’

For anyone about to marathon-sign for a mortgage, ‘Underwater’ is good

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

"Butch Cassidy: The True Story of An American Outlaw"

  • By Charles Leerhsen
  • c. 2020, Simon & Schuster
  • $28, $37 Canada; 304 pages

That man there? He's just a nice guy. Kind and generous, respectful and friendly, he's a true gentleman, and he's never judgmental. He loves children and animals, truth and honor. He's a good sport, a good man – and in the new book "Butch Cassidy" by Charles Leerhsen, he's a good shot, too.

"Butch Cassidy: The True Story of An American Outlaw" author Charles Leerhsen.

Eight years before the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969, the last of Cassidy's Wild Bunch "went into the ground." Her name was Laura Bullion and, says Leerhsen, she was one of a small handful of female groupies who followed the outlaw gang, led by the man played by Paul Newman.

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"It was easy," Leerhsen says "to be smitten by Cassidy..."

Born Robert Parker in a tiny cabin in Beaver, Utah, Cassidy grew up uninterested in both his parents farm, and his ancestors' Mormon religion. He was too fun-loving, too full of mischief and an appreciation for guns, horses, and gambling to settle down – and yet, unlike many Wild West scoundrels, he was well-read, kind and goodhearted which, in the hearts and minds of Old West citizens, set him apart from all the others during his life of crime. Later, though apparently not deceitfully, he began using "Cassidy" as a surname, alternating with his given name.

"Butch Cassidy: The True Story of An American Outlaw" by Charles Leerhsen.

Despite its appeal as an American legend, however, the story of Butch Cassidy and Harry "Sundance" Longabaugh might've merely enfolded into history, were it not for Hollywood, although Tinseltown messed with the myth. Reel men and real men were two different things and, says Leerhsen, it's possible that Sundance wasn't Cassidy's best friend. Their bones may not lie in South America, and historians believe that Cassidy may have been bisexual; indeed, Cassidy's mother commented on it. About the bank heists, train robberies, and horse thefts: Cassidy was a criminal but was Hollywood correct in portraying him as an "extraordinary human being?"

"Oddly enough," says Leerhsen, "the answer, it seems, is yes..."

Thankfully, that doesn't mean a cliched riding-off-into-the-sunset scene inside "Butch Cassidy." There's no such sentimentality here; instead, you'll find lots of delightful set-you-rights and the chance to meet a roguish scoundrel who's hard to historically hate – a notion that many of Cassidy's victims would have surprisingly agreed with.

In explaining why that's so, author Charles Leerhsen shows why Cassidy's exploits loomed so large in the West but were then largely forgotten for so long. In this, readers may get the sense that the movie memorializing didn't please Leerhsen, and that he is no fan of the general Hollywoodization of history.

But that's one small part of what's here. The real appeal of this book – what's fully half the fun of it – is the sense that Leerhsen isn't just telling this tale. He's growling it, grizzled-like, perhaps over campfire and cowpoke stew, surrounded by rustled cattle.

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Absolutely, historians will want this book. For sure, L'Amour and McMurtry fans will enjoy it. As for lovers of a good tale, well, if you want something different this summer, "Butch Cassidy" will be a nice change.

"Underwater: How Our American Dream of Homeownership Became a Nightmare"

  • By Ryan Dezember
  • c. 2020, Thomas Dunne Books
  • $28.99, $38.50 Canada; 277 pages

You always loved an ocean view. Lakefront is good, too, and if there's a boat slip, yay. Even a pond or a pool out back would make you a happy homeowner. Scientists say that humans are drawn to large bodies of blue liquid but in "Underwater" by Ryan Dezember, the tsunami isn't supposed to be inside the house.

"Underwater: How Our American Dream of Homeownership Became a Nightmare" author Ryan Dezember.

Recently married and flush with well-paying jobs, Ryan Dezember and his wife decided in 2005 to seize the American Dream. She was a kindergarten teacher; he was a reporter for an Alabama newspaper and because of his work, Dezember was aware of what was happening on Alabama's coast then.

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The beaches were once-pristine white sand, dotted with fishing shacks, modest homes, and a few marinas and bars. It was idyllic and quiet, until big money came in and the frenzy began. Land prices shot upward as developers presented plans for high-end beach-front condos that were speedily approved; buyers purchased the homes on speculation, often with little-to-no intention of living in those buildings. Prices rose, apartments were flipped, flipped, and flipped again and it was unsustainable, but banks kept lending, developers kept building, and folks kept buying.

"Underwater: How Our American Dream of Homeownership Became a Nightmare" by Ryan Dezember.

Dezember saw the warnings. It was what he'd spent his career reporting on. And yet, he and his wife started looking for a home, hoping they weren't already priced out of the area. When they found a two-bedroom house with a yard and a garage in an aging neighborhood, they made an offer and moved in.

And the bubble burst.

"After two years," he says, "in the summer of 2007, my college sweetheart and I split up and agreed to sell the house as part of our divorce. Unfortunately, the market had unraveled before our marriage."

Home, as they say, is where you hang your hat. It's where people know you and love you anyhow. It's where the heart is, but "Underwater" shows that it can also be where the headaches lie.

The first (minor) headache is here: there's a lot more on the housing bubble in author Ryan Dezember's story than there is of the personal, despite the subtitle's promise. This focus is quite region-centric, with weather disasters, crime, and an oil spill playing big parts in the tale. Yes, that gives readers a different POV of the housing bubble of 2007-2008 but it's a Catch-22: you'll be astounded, and it'll make your jaw drop, but this inclusion diminishes the wider relevancy.

And yet, you'll gain so much by reading this book, through an intensive schooling on real estate speculation, how the crisis happened, and the nation-wide effects that came from the bubble. There's where Dezember's story absolutely fits, although you may wish there was more of it to counterbalance the depth of the technicalities.

For the curious reader or anyone about to marathon-sign for a mortgage, this book is good, but the banker-Realtor-developer reader might like it more. Still, if you need its lessons, read but don't rush. Take time to understand, or "Underwater" will leave you in a puddle.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.