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The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there's lots of violence here, and it's matter-of-factly graphic. People (and a few animals) are shot, beaten, tortured, burned, injured, and killed. The main character kills repeatedly, though mostly as a lawman carrying out his duties, or in self-defense. He sees a man being skinned and burned, finds the bodies of children who have been scalped, and lots more. It's all completely appropriate to the subject matter, but definitely not for the faint-hearted. Tweens will learn about an overlooked character in the Wild West and may be inspired to read other books about him or to learn more about this period of history.
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What's the story?
Bass Reeves is born a slave to the master, an alcoholic gambler with a no-account ranch that Bass and his mother keep running smoothly while the master drinks himself into oblivion and loses most of his money. Smart as a whip, Bass knows everything about running a ranch by the time he is a teen, and is a good rider and a good shot. After possibly killing his master in self-defense, Bass is forced to run away to the Indian territory, a huge swath of lawless land running from north Texas through what is now Oklahoma, and parts of Arkansas and Kansas. There he learns even more about taking care of himself and, after saving a young Creek girl from a wolf, he is adopted into her family, becoming fluent in their language. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he becomes a rancher and family man. In his 50s he is recruited to be a deputy federal marshal to help clean up the lawless Territory, a job for which his whole life has been preparing him. He quickly becomes the best there is, bringing in thousands of desperadoes, and becoming a legend throughout the West.
Is it any good?
In this fictionalized biography, Gary Paulsen, one of the all-time great voices (and personalities) of children's literature, is up to several things at once. First, of course, he is telling the story of Reeve's life, or what little is known about it. Second, he is filling in the missing details with an imagination born not only of research, but of having lived many of those details himself, in the course of a wild and wooly life only partially chronicled in his many autobiographical books. Third, the whole story is defending his thesis, expounded in his Foreword and Epilogue, that Reeves was the kind of real-life Western hero that more famous characters, such as the Bills -- Hickok, Cody, and the Kid, as well as Wyatt Earp and Kit Carson -- only pretended to be. Paulsen is forceful, and more than a touch angry, in his argument, and by the end readers will be convinced that the silence about Reeves in histories of the period is an injustice.
The style is classic Paulsen -- meaty, gritty, and muscular. He doesn't dwell on the rougher aspects of his subject, but he doesn't shy away from them either. Above all, Paulsen is known for telling kids the truth, and not sugarcoating it. While more sensitive children may be bothered, most kids appreciate the directness and honesty, which is why this most prolific of authors (approaching 200 books) is also one of the most successful and highly regarded. THE LEGEND OF BASS REEVES has everything a kid, and adult, could want -- action, adventure, and excitement, all in the service of making known an important, but forgotten, historical figure.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the unusual writing style here: This book blends fiction with actual history. Why do you think Paulsen decided to write the story this way? Were you ever confused about what was true and what was imagined?
Why are biographies -- and even historical fictions -- important to read? Why is it important to read stories about the past? Why do you think Billy the Kid is a popular name and Bass Reeves isn't?
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