Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review of Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Carolrhoda Books, 2009.

This book stood out, quite literally, from a big cart of children's books I was annotating for an upcoming order sheet. At least an inch taller than the tallest picture book, the spine is white with one black slash near the top. The words "Bad News" are set in bold white against that black background with the rest of the title "for Outlaws" is set in black against white. Pulling out the book, I saw that the black stripe on the spine is the brim of the hat worn by Bass Reeves, whose large portrait cannot be contained on the cover. He stares out at us from under the dark brim of his hat solemnly but with a touch of humor and warmth, the whites of his eyes matching his starched collar. I was immediately smitten.

As the size of the book and his portrait suggest, Bass Reeves was larger than life. Born into slavery in 1838, he escaped from his owner during the Civil War and headed off for Indian Territory, where he lived with and was sheltered by Indians. After the war, he bought a farm, married, and "true to the song of his life, Bass had a big family" - 11 children. In 1875, Bass was hired by Judge Parker to track down outlaws as a deputy U.S. marshal - and because he was smart, honorable, a crack shot, and knew his territory like the back of his hand, he became one of the most valuable of the 200 marshals patrolling 74,000 square miles of what would later be Oklahoma.

The tales of his adventures and exploits read like tall tales, but apparently they are all true. To catch his quota of outlaws, he wore disguises, planned elaborate hoaxes, and in general used any trick possible to bring back in the bad guys - or bad ladies, as the case might be. Belle Starr, the bandit queen, turned herself in to Bass Reeves when she found out he had her warrant. After 32 years and more than 3000 arrests, Oklahoma became a state and Bass Reeves lost his job - so at the age of nearly 70, he become a police officer in Muskogee, OK and worked until he died several years later.

Both the text and the illustrations are captivating, creating a vivid portrait of a man who seems to rank right up there with Paul Bunyan and John Henry. The book opens with the capture of outlaw Jim Webb - "Jim Webb's luck was running muddy when Bass Reeves rode into town" - blasting us right into the action as Bass Reeves chases Webb down. This simple, colloquial language, glinting with just enough Western slang and lilt to make reading it aloud a joy, continues throughout the book. An example:

"Even horses played a part in his disguises. Like many U.S. marshals, Bass rode some of the finest. Most times, he forked a handsome sorrel. Bass rode proud in the saddle. There was no mistaking his silhouette. But prize horseflesh could be a dead giveaway that the rider was a lawman. Bass always kept some rough stock and rode lazy while undercover."

Don't know what "forked" means? Check out the glossary of Western words at the back, and while you're there, be sure to read the timeline (which includes Bass Reeves' induction into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1992), the list of further reading and websites, a bit of fascinating information about Judge Parker and the Indian Territory, and best of all, a fine bibliography of books, articles, and manuscripts about Bass Reeves.

I've been a big Christie fan for years - his art is always powerful, whether depicting young Bass feeding a horse at dusk or an anguished but stern Bass turning in his own son after he had committed murder. Full-page spreads offer dramatic scenes, often outdoors, while smaller paintings show us smaller moments like that of Bass trying to talk sense into captured outlaws ("Getting through to them was like trying to find hair on a frog, butg Bass kept trying"). The text is often set on yellow-gold paper that looks creased and stained with brown, bringing to mind the travel-worn warrants that Bass must have kept in his saddlebags or folded into an inside pocket of his jacket. The endpapers depict Bass's United States Deputy Marshal star against this background.

This is altogether a marvelously entertaining and thought-provoking portrait of a little-known Western hero. The bold and action-packed illustrations will pull kids in and the rollicking text will grab hold and keep them hooked until the end. Don't let this sit on your shelves - display it and talk it up to kids, parents, and teachers.

Highly recommended for ages 8 and up.

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