Wednesday, February 24

Bad News For Outlaws

The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves,
Deputy U.S. Marshal
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
illustrations by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Books 2009

A picture book biography, done right, of the African American lawman who was feared in his day but nearly lost to history.

This book starts off the way many good books do, and should, especially biographies: with a solid action sequence that pulls the reader in and sets the tone of what the story that follows is about. In Bad News for Outlaws this sequence is a showdown between Reeves and Jim Webb that ends with the lawman shooting his quarry but gaining the man's respect at the same time. There's the action of a chase, a mini lesson in right and wrong, and the theme that will carry throughout that Reeves was as honest and true a man as the West ever created.

Following this scene there is a short entr'acte that demonstrates Reeves physical strength, what life was like in the Oklahoma Territory, and that he was also respected by all, good and bad, black and white. From there the story of Reeves' life runs fairly chronological, beginning when he was a Southern slave and covering his more than thirty years as a U.S Marshal. It makes for great story that even Nelson admits at the end has all the earmarks of a tall tale, though she has striven to tell it as true as possible.

To that end the facts of the story seem straightforward and difficult to imagine being doctored. There are a couple quotes attributed to "a white sharecropper" and a "sharpshooter" that I don't doubt are sourced, but the generic nature of their attribution left me a little conflicted. On the one hand, their comments help underscore Reeves' character, but at the same time when other quotes used are attributed to specific historical individuals they stand out the same as those in other biographies I've read as coming from questionable sources. It's such a minor quibble – okay, those quotes and some of the colloquial cliches that crop up – that I almost hesitate to mention them.

So why mention them?

Because far too often it seems I run into life stories that fall short, either in quality, storytelling, or accuracy, that I felt obliged to point out a solid example of a picture book biography that comes closest I've seen to being perfect. It's open, and honest, and like it's subject not beyond a minor flaw in character, but nothing that detracts from the overall effect. Handsomely illustrated as well.
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