A few miles east of where I’m sitting lies the city of Round Rock, Texas, where you can travel on Sam Bass Road, catch a performance at the Sam Bass Community Theatre, and sign your kids up for Sam Bass Youth Baseball.
Who was Sam Bass? He was a train robber whose fate it was to get gunned down in Round Rock 128 years ago this month. You just missed the annual reenactments.
It’s against such a backdrop of undeserved fame that Newbery Honoree Gary Paulsen has plucked another Bass — African-American lawman Bass Reeves — from equally undeserved obscurity. Paulsen’s book (Random House, 8/06) is subtitled “Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West,” and it’s hard to know which word in that phrase deserves the most emphasis.
As described by Paulsen, Reeves was certainly valiant — he went on 3,000 manhunts as a federal marshal, and they all came only after he answered the call to duty at the then-ancient age of 51 — and the outlines of his life are true, from his birth into slavery to his death in his 80s, just barely off the job. But as Paulsen states outright and makes even clearer in his omission of any source notes, there’s relatively little hard data available about Reeves’ life, and thus the ride Paulsen takes readers on is largely one of his own imagining.
It’s a remarkable journey, and a bloody one. Reeves lived in a violent time and place, and Paulsen is matter-of-fact about this violence: “While Bass watched, a horse kicked a stray dog and killed it and two drunk men came boiling out of a saloon, fighting with knives as big as swords.” But what makes the biggest impact is Paulsen’s depiction of Reeves’ quiet dignity, from his boyhood as a slave through his dramatic claiming of his freedom and on through his heartbreaking arrest of his own son.
We can hope that Reeves’ time in the limelight is only beginning, that Paulsen’s efforts — and those of Art T. Burton, author of the new Black Gun, Silver Star — will encourage others to examine the lawman’s life and put their own spins on his story. As fine a tribute as The Legend of Bass Reeves is, even better would be if Paulsen’s book becomes simply a legend of Bass Reeves, one of many.
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