"It is easy to find yourself fascinated with Bass Reeves," says Sidney Thompson, a professor of creative writing and African-American literature at Texas Christian University. "He just took over my life!"
Thompson is the author of "Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves," released in 202o, and "Hell on the Border," new this year. His historical novels have won numerous awards for narrating the real-life story of Bass Reeves, the Arkansas native who, after escaping slavery, became arguably the greatest lawman of the American Old West.
Thompson will sign books Aug. 7 at Bookish in the Fort Smith Bakery District and speak Aug. 8 at the Fayetteville Public Library and Aug. 9 at the Fort Smith Museum of History. He answered these questions for our Hidden Gems book column:
Q. Tell me a little bit about you, please: Where did you grow up? What inspired you to write? Were there readers in your family?
A. I grew up practically in a temple of books. Both of my parents were university professors and were always reading, and my older brother's voracious appetite for books eclipsed even theirs. I sometimes wonder if I decided to write to get their attention or approval, and it seemed jazzier to me than just being a reader. I enjoyed reading but, like my mother with her flowers, I craved literal engagement, the challenge and labor of it, and to have something at the end of the day I could call my own.
Q. At what point did you get interested in African-American narratives and why?
A. An interest in African-American narratives was, in a way, my birthright -- a family heirloom I organically inherited. My father published articles and presented at conferences in the 1970s and 1980s on what was then termed Black English, some of which he co-authored with his best friend, an internationally renowned African-American linguist. When I was in elementary school, my father gave me "Black Like Me" to read, and since I loved it, he gave me "A Raisin in the Sun." It was as simple as that. My hometown of Memphis played a significant factor as well. So I eventually grew interested in race relations, in the civil rights movement, in Memphis music, in becoming a bridge over a deep, dark river of misery and hope -- also my birthright.
Q. What brought Bass Reeves onto your radar as a subject?
A. When I heard Morgan Freeman declare in an interview on CNN in 2010 that Bass Reeves was his dream role, I suspected, like a good deputy with a hunch, that I had just found my next project, my next obsession -- even my next life, which is what a new perspective should inevitably give a writer, if it's a worthy one. "You ain't heard a lot of stuff about Bass Reeves," said Freeman, appearing already to slip into character. "Nobody's ever tackled him. He was one of the most well-known deputy marshals in the West in his time. I want to do Bass Reeves." Freeman was right. I had not heard a lot of stuff about Bass Reeves; in fact, I had not heard the name once. Wanting to get to the bottom of how that could be, I ordered the only two books I could find that existed on the subject of Bass Reeves: Art. T. Burton's "Black Gun, Silver Star," a scholarly compilation of court documents, newspaper articles, interviews and photographs, and Gary Paulsen's "The Legend of Bass Reeves," a 137-page novel for young adults. I had never attempted or even considered writing an historical novel, yet found myself, like Freeman, wanting to do Bass Reeves -- and was surprisingly open to the challenge.
Q. Talk, please, about weaving facts into your novels? How much did you study Bass Reeves? What did you learn about him as a man and a marshal?
A. I began my project believing I was going to write only one novel framed solely around his years as a lawman, but as I began to imagine the events of Reeves' life, I realized that readers would never believe his grandiose accomplishments without also learning what in his youth as a slave could have possibly prepared him to become the most feared and successful lawman in the most dangerous federal jurisdiction in American history. How exactly does an uneducated, tortured slave learn enough about the world and repair his psyche to achieve greatness? These questions broadened my research so that what simply started out to be narrowly focused on Bass Reeves inevitably became a plethora of rabbit holes: the Civil War on the frontier, railroads, cattle trails, Jim Crow, Native Americans, plants and animals indigenous to the Southwest, 19th century guns, clothing, medicine, language and customs, etc., etc. Essentially, the life of Bass Reeves teaches us American history. I eventually decided to uproot my family in Alabama and move to Texas to earn a Ph.D. in African-American narratives so that I could write in Bass Reeves' back yard with greater understanding, sensitivity and authenticity about his entire life, including his slave life. After 10 years of studying, plotting, replotting, writing and revising, the first of three books, "Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves," was at last published.
I weave as many facts from Bass Reeves' life and the frontier era as I possibly can to make my trilogy much more relevant than mere entertainment with historical framing, and that includes dialogue from interviews and court testimonies. My aim has been to write historical fiction with an emphasis on history so that when there are gaps in the record, the fictional characters or scenes must nevertheless be informed and guided by what we know to have been true. I like to think that what I ultimately render is the totality, or the total possibility, of Bass Reeves by narrating not only what he did, along with how and why, but also what he could have done and likely did -- with the narration always pointing to essential truths about his epic, heroic life and how it proves meaningful to our own. This is living history. My books are never just about the past.
Q. Can you outline, please, a little bit of the plot lines of all three novels?
A. "Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves: The Bass Reeves Trilogy, Book One" (2020) narrates his life as a slave to two very different masters. Just when he is beginning to grow an attachment for his first one, who teaches him how to shoot a gun, Bass Reeves is given away to a much meaner master with a savage wit. This master is a prominent Texas politician and cavalry officer who carries Reeves as his body servant to fight at his side in battles in the Western theater of the Civil War. Reeves must reconcile his conflicting desires to love and survive and to be free.
"Hell on the Border: The Bass Reeves Trilogy, Book Two" (2021) opens 20 years after the Civil War, when he is at the peak of his career and is a man of disguises. On the heels of tracking down the bravest man he ever met, Reeves makes his most tragic error and is arrested for murder.
Book Three is a work in progress, which continues his legendary career of incorporating innovative undercover tactics and detective work. The climactic storyline involves Reeves' decision to track down his own son, guilty of murder. I hope to finish the book by the end of this year.
Q. What's next for you after the Bass Reeves Trilogy?
A. I have a middle-grade novel coming out in the fall, titled "Kudzu's Enormous New Life." Reminiscent of E.B. White's classic novels, "Kudzu's Enormous New Life" offers life lessons for parents and children of all ages, including developmental differences, faith, forgiveness, constructive progress, reciprocity, stewardship of the earth, and the myriad of ways humans and animals communicate. Owen is a 3-year-old boy on the autism spectrum who is visiting his grandparents on their idyllic farm; he struggles to be understood until he befriends Kudzu, a chipmunk, and a cast of other animals who help him say his first clear words -- one of many acts of love that the animals engineer to establish a lasting peace everyone on the farm can enjoy.
Go & Do
When: 2 p.m. Aug. 7
Where: Bookish in the Fort Smith Bakery District, 70th S. Seventh St.
Cost: Free; books available for purchase
‘A Conversation With Sidney Thompson’
When: 2 p.m. Aug. 8
Where: Willard and Pat Walker Community Room at the Fayetteville Public Library
Register: At faylib.org/events
When: 6 p.m. Aug. 9
Where: Fort Smith Museum of History, 320 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith
Cost: $7 adults; $5 veterans and military; $2 children 6-15
Information: (479) 783-7841, fortsmithmuseum.org