Book Review: The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the American West, by Jeff Guinn.
Just about everybody has heard of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Among the iconic moments in American history, it’s right up there with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg, the Great Depression, the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and the invention of anchovy pizza. Most of us know the legends about the fight between the Earps and the Clantons—the stories have been invented and reinvented in numerous works of fiction, films, a TV series, and so on. But there are many distortions in such “creative” histories, and not many of us know the real story—or at least I didn’t until I read Guinn’s big book.
Amplified by maps and photographs, this history of the event begins by providing background information on the American west, the culture and aspirations of its citizens, and the principal characters of the gunfight in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail. Readers will learn about Ike Clanton, the Earps, Doc Holliday and others, and come to understand how they fit into the mix of events that culminated in the legendary gunfight in Tombstone on October 26, 1881. At times, Guinn may present more background detail than some readers want to wade through, but that’s not really a problem since we can just skim those parts if we wish. The chapters on the gunfight itself and the ensuing events (including Wyatt’s vendetta against those who ambushed members of his family) are the core of the book—describing the motivations, the confusions, and the snap decisions that led to the thirty-second battle that still reverberates in the legends of the American west.
Jeff Guinn is a good writer, and he handles his subject with care and spirit. But is every detail of the story as he tells it absolutely and verifiably true? Probably not, given the reliability problems associated with witnesses and other sources—and I doubt that Guinn himself would claim otherwise. Arguments about some aspects of this event will no doubt continue. But this is a good book for either the casual reader or the serious student of such events, and I have little doubt that most readers will pick it up with lively curiosity and put it down with a better understanding of the gunfight at the OK Corral.