Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bad News for Outlaws, Good News for Readers

Since February is Black History Month, I thought I'd give a shout-out to author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who just won the Coretta Scott King Award for her book, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal.

Reeves, born a slave in 1838, fled to Indian Territory in the 1860's and lived among several Native American tribes. In time he married and raised a large family, supporting them as a farmer before being recruited as the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. During his 32-year career, he apprehended more than 3,000 felons. Many were notorious, dangerous outlaws, but Reeves was not only a crack shot, but a smart and wily lawman who outwitted his opponents.

I'd never heard of Bass Reeves, and it's always interesting to read about someone new. But what especially delighted me about this picture book biography was Nelson's playful use of language. The text is peppered with juicy colloquialisms that add a marvelous flavor to the story and bring the late 19th-century Indian Territory to life. Here's a sample:

"Jim Webb's luck was running muddy when Bass Reeves rode into town. Webb had stayed one jump ahead of the lawman for two years. He wasn't about to be caught now. Packing both rifle and revolver, the desperado leaped out a window of Bywaters' store. He made a break for his horse, but Reeves cut him off.

"Bass hollered from the saddle of his stallion, warning Webb to give up.

"The outlaw bolted.

"Bass shook his head. He hated bloodshed, but Webb might need killing. As a deputy U.S. marshal, it was Bass's job to bring Webb in. Alive or dead."

The most moving spread in the book, illustrated with great painterly style by R. Gregory Christie, shows Reeves at one of the most tragic moments of his life--when he had to arrest his own son for murder. Note the back cover, too, where Christie paints Reeves from a low angle, so that we're looking up at him. The image shows this legendary lawman standing tall and makes him look larger than life.

Hooray for Vaunda Micheaux Nelson for bringing this lesser-known African-American figure to our attention with such intelligence and wit. Kids will love the action and adventure of this well-told story, which like all books about Black History should be enjoyed not just during February, but all year round.

Here's an interview with Nelson from 2009 that was posted on The Brown Bookshelf:
What books about African Americans are you reading?


Becky Levine said...

This looks wonderful. Going on my to-read list. :)

Karen Romano Young said...

I'm dying to read this book now. Thanks for posting about it. And isn't the cover terrific?