James Alexander Thom · 2014
When James Alexander Thom wrote about the lives of Native Americans, pioneers and explorers, the only way he believed he could bring authenticity to his historical fiction was to experience what his characters had.
He walked in the path of Lewis and Clark to the West and back. He fasted for a week to learn not only how it felt but how it affected his body. He reconstructed a log cabin using tools only from the period he wrote about. He broke through ice in a pond to experience walking in icy water.
“The body remembers an awful lot that the mind can’t find in a book,” he said.
In the early years before he became a full-time novelist, Thom honed his skills at newspapers in Indiana and Florida.
This journalist-turned-novelist ultimately found a different outlet for his writing – historical fiction. His novels preserve a once-forgotten history of Indiana, Native Americans and America, and gave him a new way of life. In 1989, members of the Shawnee Nation, traditionally a closed society, were so appreciative of his research and writing about Chief Tecumseh in Panther in the Sky, they adopted him. “I’m more Indian than white man anymore,” he said.
Thom was born in 1933 in Gosport, Ind., one of four children of medical doctors Jay W. and Julia Swain Thom. Thom met his wife, Dark Rain, a Shawnee, during that Shawnee adoption. They married a year later. He has a stepdaughter from a previous marriage, Lucinda Gosden, and his surviving siblings are Julia Clemons and Robert Thom.
Initially, Thom studied to be a forest ranger at Purdue University. After a semester, he joined the Marines and served in Korea. When he left the military in 1955, Thom settled in Indianapolis to sell insurance. But “I had no capacity for that,” he said. So he took a job in the advertising department at The Indianapolis Star while attending night school at Indiana University at Indianapolis and, later, Butler University, to pursue his love of writing.
Thom graduated in 1961 and began work as a police reporter for the Star. In his six years there, he wrote features, and ultimately served as business and finance editor. But a different style of writing constantly called.
“Any desire I had to be a storyteller started with Mark Twain,” Thom said. “Because of a good librarian, I grew up on Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner and Hugo. But Mark Twain stands above all others.
“I realized if I stayed in journalism, I wouldn’t be able to be a good novelist; the pace is so different. But journalism taught me to write in any kind of conditions, how to observe and how to research.”
Journalism also paid the bills until his novels could support him. Thom served as the editor for the Indianapolis Nuggets magazine. Thinking he could live inexpensively on a boat, he moved to Florida but ended up working for the Fort Lauderdale Sun. He returned to Indianapolis as an editor for the revived Saturday Evening Post. He was a freelance writer for National Geographic, and he taught at the Indiana University School of Journalism from 1976 to 1980, while also writing for the (Bloomington, Ind.) Herald-Telephone.
“By 1980, my novels started earning enough that I could just write,” Thom said.
His books include The Art & Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, From Sea to Shining Sea, Follow the River, The Long Knife, The Red Heart, Panther in the Sky, St. Patrick’s Battalion, Warrior Woman, Sign-Talker, The Children of First Man, Staying Out of Hell and Spectator Sport.
Dark Rain Thom calls her husband a “gentle soul” and says the most telling of his stories was published in Reader’s Digest in 1976 and reprinted in 2013. It recounted his assignment where a grandfather accidentally had backed his truck over his granddaughter, killing her. Thom was at the home, Speed Graphic camera in hand.
While the other reporters were talking to the police in the front yard, Thom found the grandfather alone in the kitchen where his granddaughter’s body lay on the Formica table. He wrote:
“Every element of the picture was perfect: the grandfather in his plain work clothes, his white hair backlighted by sunshine, the child’s form wrapped in the sheet, the atmosphere of the simple home suggested by black iron trivets and World’s Fair souvenir plates on the walls flanking the window. Outside, the police could be seen inspecting the fatal rear wheel of the pickup, while the child’s mother and father leaned in each other’s arms.
“I don’t know how many seconds I stood there, unable to snap that shutter. My professional conscience told me to take it. Yet I couldn’t make my hand fire and intrude on the poor man’s island of grief.
“At length, I crept away, shaken with doubt about my suitability for the journalistic profession.”
Others say it is that sensitivity that drives Thom’s best work. J. Bruce Baumann, a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee who worked with Thom on a couple of stories for National Geographic, said the author had a way with sources.
“He was so disarming that subjects would almost instantly open their hearts and tell their most intimate details. He tied their stories to the world they lived in and made them feel so important.”
Thom’s words “always put a reader in the place where you could smell the surroundings, taste the mood and feel the joy or pain,” Baumann said.
Nancy Niblack Baxter of Hawthorne Publishing said Thom “spent years on each novel, digging into obscure records, following the trails of George Rogers Clark and the ‘lost Miamis’ and Civil War soldiers himself. If Mary Ingles wanted to ‘follow the river’ out of Indian captivity, Jim walked that very path to experience its rigors.”
Thom has been writing novels exclusively for the last 30 years and says he has not retired. Although he will celebrate his 81st birthday this year, “I have another 20 years of work mapped out, so I’m going to be here awhile.”
–by Linda Negro, Grassroots editor, Evansville Courier & Press