“People are rendered ferocious by misery.”
Mary Wollstonecraft — a writer, philosopher and fierce advocate of women’s rights (and mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein) — wrote these words more than 200 years ago, but they certainly ring true when considering the social and economic conditions that gave rise to the legend of Bonnie and Clyde.
Both were born into absolute poverty with no way to get out. Clyde’s family was so poor, when they moved to the slums of West Dallas looking for work they lived under their wagon for months. Like many young men at the time, Clyde wanted more than he could afford, and certainly more than spotty employment of the Depression era could finance.
Clyde’s first brush with the law came from failing to return a rental car on time; after that, it was stolen turkeys. Once he drew the attention of law enforcement, it wasn’t long before he entered a brutal prison system that used prisoners for profit — free agricultural labor — and ignored horrific conditions inside (Clyde was a victim of sexual assault). He was so desperate to get out, he chopped off two of his toes.
Bonnie had it better, but not by much. Options were limited for poor young women, especially in those days — a quick marriage and a hard lifetime of taking care of a large family was her best hope. She tried that, marrying a philandering criminal at 16. It didn’t last long. She always harbored dreams of a better life as a Hollywood starlet, but the slums of West Dallas didn’t offer many opportunities to get noticed.
Then she met Clyde, and he noticed her.
We all know how it turned out after that — from desperation to crime, from crime to violence, and from violence to a gruesome death in a bloody ambush in which more than 100 rounds were shot at them, their bodies brutalized almost beyond recognition.
Poverty does not, of course, excuse a life of crime, but it’s certainly an enabler, and that’s the crucible in which Bonnie and Clyde were forged. They likely would have been reviled by their contemporaries and forgotten by history if not for one other element that transformed the anger and despair, the rage and hopelessness, into something else, something that transcended their crimes and cemented them into the popular imagination: true love.
Collectively, Americans — and even those outside of this country — largely remain fascinated by Bonnie and Clyde because, in spite of thieving and murdering, the violence and destruction, they found each other and held on until the bitter, violent end. Misery may render people ferocious, but hopelessness sometimes renders them inseparable. Bonnie and Clyde became the ultimate doomed lovers, finding the kind of love that eclipses all rational thought, all problems, all concerns with right or wrong. Their burned so brightly, it momentarily outshined the misery they tried to leave behind and the misery they inflicted on others.
The real catastrophe of Bonnie and Clyde, aside from the lives damaged and lost, is that they found in each other a love that likely could have sustained them on any path they chose. If things had turned out just a little differently, if Wall Street hadn’t plunged the country into the Great Depression, if the prison system had protected a teenaged Clyde from assault, of they’d tried their hand at different jobs, we might never have known their story.
But of course, their powerful love wasn’t enough to prevent things from spiraling out of control.
In our speculative history series about Bonnie and Clyde, we give them a second chance and an opportunity to atone. Their love becomes a lodestar, guiding them into a new life.
In the first book, Bonnie and Clyde: Resurrection Road, that new life begins when a mysterious government agent, Suicide Sal, plucks them out of the deadly ambush in Sailes, Louisiana at the last second and forces them to become federal agents, using their unique “skills” to save FDR from an assassin.
In the second book, Dam Nation, Bonnie and Clyde must stop saboteurs from destroying Boulder (Hoover) Dam. In Book 2, the notorious duo take firm steps on a path to redemption, beginning to see the pain their actions inflicted on so many innocent people.
Both “what-if” novels are fast-paced thrillers with sharp dialogue and plenty of steamy romance. The books also tackle, as an undercurrent, the poverty and systemic injustice that fueled the rise of Bonnie and Clyde, along with examining the plight of the working class in that era. These issues, such as the gaping wealth/income inequality and the influence of corporate power, are increasingly relevant to today’s economic landscape, making this retelling of their story alarmingly relevant.
But at heart, it was love thrust them into the realm of legend, and this takes center stage in the series. Now that Bonnie and Clyde have a (fictional) second chance, and an opportunity for redemption, their love is the only certain thing in a world of shadowy allegiances, the constant threat of violence and the possibility of atonement.
Note: this is an article we wrote for our pals on the Wise Words blog.