This book tells the story of Bass Reeves, who was born into slavery in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. Like most slaves, he was given the surname of his owner, George Reeves. During the Civil War, Reeves fled north to what is now Oklahoma, and lived with Native Americans.
In 1875, a U.S. Marshal in the then-designated Indian Territory hired 200 deputies and, hearing about Reeves’ skill with Indian languages as well as with a gun, he took on Reeves as well.
Reeves worked for thirty-two years as a deputy, and was reputed to be “one of the bravest men this country has ever known.” He died at age 72 in 1910 of a kidney disease. Hundreds of people – blacks, whites, and Indians, attended his funeral.
The story of Reeves is a natural for kids. It is a real-life action-packed look at the Wild West that doesn’t read like non-fiction at all. It features a fantastic hero who overcame the worst sort of adversity with his exceptional mind and extraordinary gumption. For example, as a slave, Bass was never allowed to learn to read, but when he became a deputy, he managed to capture outlaws by his ingenuity and courage. He would have arrest warrants read to him by someone else, and in the process he would memorize the shapes of the letters for each name, along with the charges against that person. Then he’d go out hunting. As the author writes:
“Even when he got thirty warrants at one time, Bass always brought in the right outlaws.”
He not only arrested the criminals (he once brought in seventeen prisoners at once!) but at night, he’d talk to them about the Bible and about repentance.
His bravery was legendary; he actually stopped a lynching in action once, as the angry mob “just watched in awe as he rode off.”
And his integrity was unquestioned as well. He even arrested his own son for murder, after none of his colleagues would do it out of respect for Bass.
In Bass’s career as a deputy, he arrested more than three thousand men and women, and only killed fourteen in the line of duty. After Oklahoma became a state and the Indian Territory ceased to exist, he was hired on with the police force in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Nobody would mess with him given with his reputation:
“During his two years on the force, not a single crime occurred in his patrol area.”
Evaluation: This is a wonderful story, and R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations meet his usual high standards. (Christie is a multiple winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award inter alia.) In this book, Christie styles some of his paintings to look like Old West wanted posters. Although most of the pictures use earthy tones, they are bold and vibrant and set against bright blue skies.
It took me a while to get used to Mr. Christie. As he has said in an interview:
“The disproportionate compositions and elongated figures [of my art] are meant to be a directional device for the viewer, my own natural inclination, and a challenge for the viewer to break away from the established fundamental belief that all children’s books must be realistic or cute.”
Once you get used to the idea that children’s books are a good medium for introducing different visual styles as well as conveying stories, you can’t help but fall in love with Christie. (You can see some great examples of his artwork, here.)
Supplementary material at the back of the book includes a glossary of western words, a timeline, a guide to further reading and websites, and more.
Note: This book was the 2010 author award winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award. The author explains that books have been in her life since the day she was born; her mother chose her first name based on the character of a book she was reading at the time.
Published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2009
Reading level: Ages 8 and up
Library Binding: 40 pages