Digging into an American tragedy

 

Last updated 6/20/2023 at 10:03am



The first of Jeff Guin’s books that I discovered was “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the OK Corral and How It Changed the American West.” It’s an outstanding read; Guinn takes a story you think you know and digs in past the crust of myth to find the pure ore.

In recent years, Guinn has turned to crime. He brought a sharp journalist’s eye to the biography of Charles Manson. I would not have thought any time spent in the company of that sordid little con man would be time well spent — but it is. That’s because all of Guinn’s work holds up a mirror to America — a clear mirror, not one distorted by an agenda.

Guinn’s most recent work is “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage.” The book published for the 30th anniversary of the seminal 51-day siege of the Mount Carmel settlement of the religious sect, which ended in a horrific fire that took 76 lives, 23 of them children.

The recognition that a clear picture is very difficult to achieve in an incident of great complexity and conflicting interpretations of actions and motives is made clear in the epigraph he chose for the work: “A fog of crosscutting motives and narratives, a complexity that defies storybook simplicity, that is usually the way history happens.” — Rick Perlstein, “The Invisible Bridge.”

Guinn interviewed everybody he could connect with to craft a careful narrative that is probably as complete and accurate as we’re going to get. He plays fair with the point of view of everyone from surviving Davidians to ATF and FBI agents — but without falling into the trap of sympathetic identification with a particular point of view. Where definitive judgments are impossible, Guinn lays out the possibilities and probabilities and offers judicious assessments.

The book doesn’t just detail the events of the siege — Guinn spins out the strange history of the Davidians, which dates back well before Vernon Howell, who became Davis Koresh, was born.

What happened in Waco continues to echo. It’s an important story, and Guinn has told it as well as it can be done.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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