Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh
Although their story is well over 80 years old, Bonnie and Clyde are infamous celebrities to this day; and while most of the facts about their criminal endeavors are readily available, mystery still shrouds most of their lives from before their meeting. This is just the type of sketchy fodder needed for exactly the type of historical fiction novel I love, and Jenni L. Walsh is the author that took up this challenge. In this novel, Walsh introduces us to a girl called Bonnelyn Parker, a church-going, studious girl who dreams of becoming a teacher and finding a way to earn enough to help her family out of poverty. Bonnelyn is also in love with her childhood sweetheart, Roy Thornton, who wants to become a journalist. Together, they hope to make a better life, and maybe even travel far away from the confines of their poor town outside Dallas, Cement City. First, they have to graduate high school. The problem is that money is tighter than usual since she's just lost her job at the diner, and her brother is out of work after an accident at the cement plant. When Bonnelyn's best friend Blanche gets an offer to make money working the bar at an illegal speakeasy, Bonnelyn has no choice but to do the same.
Anyone who has read anything about Bonnie Parker knows that what I've just described here is pure fiction. There's nothing anywhere indicating that Bonnie's real name was Bonnelyn, and there's no proof that she ever worked in a speakeasy. While both Blanche and Roy are real people, the actual timelines relating to their acquaintances are nothing like what Walsh puts into this story. Furthermore, Walsh even had Blanche only dating Buck Barrow, who was Clyde's brother, while in truth they were married and Blanche was his third wife. You could say that Walsh decided to play it as fast and easy with the few available facts, as Bonnie and Clyde did with the law. Purists will probably get upset with this, but frankly, I can't say that it mattered to me one way or another (well, except for the part where Walsh has someone sing "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1927, when it didn't come out until 1929). Call me a hypocrite if you will, because I've panned books for smaller violations than this, but I'm not going to disparage this book (well, at least not completely). You see, my thinking here is, if you can overlook historical inconsistencies, then that's an indication that there's a good story underneath, and that's precisely what I found here.
To begin with, Walsh makes you believe (or at least want to believe) that the woman who died in a barrage of bullets after a bloody crime spree, started out as a good girl. This pulls my heartstrings because, naïve as it may seem, I have always wanted to believe in the goodness inside people. The character Walsh calls Bonnelyn goes to church, works hard to earn a few pennies to help her family, is a diligent student who fears God and has big, honest dreams. Walsh takes us through the systematic process of how desperation for money (and some unsavory influence from her wild friend) draws Bonnelyn to take the work in the speakeasy. From there we learn how that world pulls her in, how the people around her make it easier for her to continue, and how her conscience bothers her less and less as she falls deeper into this darker side of her world. I must say that what Walsh does here with Bonnelyn (despite a few hiccups along the way) is an excellent example of character development. What really impressed me, however, was how Walsh developed Blanche. I know Blanche has a supporting role here, but her transformation from being a flirt and bit of a slut to a woman deeply in love with Buck Barrow (Clyde's brother) was absolutely letter perfect. Together, the fictional criminalization of these two women was fully understandable, and that made the book perfectly captivating.
By the way, those hiccups mentioned above focused partially on times when I felt that Bonnelyn wasn't moving in enough of a liner direction towards her future life of crime. Mind you, I get that people vacillate, but I think this would have worked better if Walsh had made Bonnelyn a touch more of a defiant soul. Another thing that didn't sit completely right with me were the times when both Blanche and Bonnelyn used words that seemed slightly too sophisticated for them, which at times didn't fit well with the natural flow of the dialogue. I'm not implying that these women were stupid and didn't know these words; I just don't think they would have used words like "surreal" in normal, casual conversation, especially when these same characters are prone to dropping the final 'g' on their verbs. This may just be my own hypersensitivity, and other readers might not notice, and overall, I don't think these niggles (or even the inaccuracies) damaged the book for me. In fact, I can warmly recommend this book and I think this debut novel deserves a healthy four out of five stars (and yes, I am looking forward to reading Walsh's sequel to this novel next year, very much).
"Becoming Bonnie" by Jenni L. Walsh published by Macmillan-Tor/Forge Forge Books, released May 9, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, eBooks, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.