Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
At its heart, Under an Outlaw Moon is a love story about two kids trying to escape the Depression. Based on a true story, Dietrich Kalteis breathes life into a couple of real-life outlaws. This is not an easy thing to do. An author needs space to allow the muse to roam. Kalteis has the facts. But newspaper stories and novels are two very different genres. How does he bring this story to life and make these characters, not only sympathetic but our friends?
In his legendary clipped casual style, Kalteis creates personas from facts and those newspaper names: Bennie Dickson and Stella Mae Redenbaugh (soon to be Dickson). They meet on June 12, 1937 at a skating rink. Stella is fifteen, naïve, and impressionable; Bennie is over a decade her senior, experienced and sporting a criminal record: six years' hard time for a bank robbery in Missouri. Still, this is love. Their romance boils and simmers while Bennie boxes under the name Johnny O’Malley, and Stella endures the pains of being a poor naïve girl in America. When they marry a year later, she’s already hurt, traumatized, and looking to escape with a romantic hero. She finds one in Bennie. An honourable, sociable, robber, Bennie reads philosophy and writes poetry; plus he’s head over heals in love with Sure Shot Stella. Who wouldn’t fall for Bennie?
These two are classically romantic. They want a house with a white picket fence. It shouldn’t take much—a couple of banks ought to do it. If only J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t the kingpin of the FBI.
Things I love about this book. Kalteis’s legendary writing style. He spins us around his short, clipped phrases and keeps us wanting more. Not many authors today write omniscient (given that agents and publishers warn us against it). But Kalteis is a literary rebel. Embracing the omniscient point-of-view, he provides us access to the thoughts of whoever has the most pertinent information at the time. The personalities of the characters shine in the dialogue. Bennie and Stella are constantly sniping at each other. Love banter. And Stella is cheeky. “You gonna call yourself unkillable again, I think I’m gonna throw up.” She loves her man; there’s no doubt about that. But she’s also spending hours and hours on the run with him, stealing cars, crossing state lines, sleeping wherever, and all in the first year of their relationship. I think she’s earned some cheeky rights. The bulk of the story spans two years: 1937-1939.
A few times, Kalteis spotlights the pursuers. Remember, this is the Depression—the days of Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, J. Edgar Hoover and his relentless G-men. We know it can’t end well, and yet, we don’t want it to end. Sitting in the back seat of Bennie and Stella’s stolen coupe is too real and we’re too invested. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. A good writer is much easier to spot. You’ll find one here. And though he’d tell you he’s writing crime, in Under an Outlaw Moon, Kalteis is also writing a big-hearted romance.
Under an Outlaw Moon is published by ECW Press.