14:14 PB ELEMENT Blog Review: THEME – Looking at Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
(My post #11 in the 14:14 Picture Book Element Blog challenge conducted by Christie Wild, February 14-28, 2014.)
Title: Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal
Author: Vaunda Micheau Nelson
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books / Lerner Publ. Group, Inc.
Although word count alone (2,759) might ‘disqualify’ Bad News for Outlaws as a picture book in some people’s minds, it is definitely a non-fiction picture book masterpiece. Christie’s rich full-bleed art depicts moments in Bass Reeve’s illustrious life in a way that supports the strongly stated theme lived out by this amazing lawman of the old west: good vs. bad.
Nelson starts the story with a showdown between Bass and an outlaw named Webb, and in the first page we get a glimpse of the true character that underlies this theme:
“The outlaw bolted.
Bass shook his head. He hated bloodshed, but Webb might need killing.”
We know from movies and television how hard the frontier was. I recently watched the 1990’s Ken Burns documentary, “The West,” amazed at how rough and rugged lives were as our nation grew to fill the void of western deserts, mountains, plains, and the Pacific coast. There are stories in that great epic of good people who struggled with bad people, but what’s significant about Bass Reeve’s story? He was a black lawman, at a time when African Americans were considered second class citizens by many.
The theme of right struggling with wrong is personified in Reeves’ story from his childhood in Texas. Owner Colonel George Reeves, who valued his slave because of his shooting ability, took Bass with him to war against the North. The tale is that the two men argued one night during a card game, and Bass struck the colonel. Certain death being the punishment for such behavior by a slave, Bass escaped to Indian Territory.
When the war ended, Bass settled down, married, and raised a family. Enter Judge Parker, who came to bring the law to the lawless territory, who hired 200 deputy marshals. He hired Bass because of his shooting reputation, his knowledge of the people and area.
The theme of conflict between good and bad is revealed by incidents in Reeves’ life as he hunted down and captured criminals. More often than not, he used cunning, not brute force or bullets, to arrest lawbreakers, sometimes “seventeen prisoners at a time.” He always shot as a last resort. He arrested more than 3,000 men and women in his career, but only had to kill fourteen in the line of duty.
And what is unique about this lawman is that he demonstrated a sense of justice that involved mercy. Reeves’ story reminds me of a Psalm that says “truth and mercy kissed one another.” Consider this passage:
“Being a churchgoing man, Bass reckoned he could do more than put bad men behind bars. In the evenings after supper, he talked to the outlaws about the Bible and about doing right. Getting through to them was like trying to find hair on a frog, but Bass kept trying.”
This sense of good overcoming evil, of right overcoming wrong, substantiates the theme throughout the book. Reeves was a calm, confident, level-headed man, who always seemed to do what he thought was right, whether in regard to criminals or lawless mobs.
Despite racist opposition by many whites in the area, who didn’t like the idea of a black marshal, he followed his duty as a lawman. One day he came across an angry crowd lynching a man. Bass cut the man down, put him on his saddle, and rode away. The respect he held forced the mob to just watch silently as he rode away.
Marshal Reeves died of a kidney disease in 1910. His story, however, set the theme for justice, at a time and in a place where justice was fragile. I think this story is important for today’s youth, when many video games and much entertainment wrongly portrays justice as vengeful, rampant, forceful, and violent. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, thanks to author Nelson and illustrator Christie, is my newest frontier hero.
Long live themes in our writing for children that promote a just and fair culture and society. What is the most powerful theme you have written about in your writing? I’d love for you to share in the comments.