Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones

The paintings of the Dutch masters have always been fascinating to me.These expressive portraits are astonishing. Being a "fabric" person, I find myself looking at the exquisite lace collars. The viewer can almost feel the crisp linen. In the van Miereveld, below, the intricacy of the lace is apparent. The Jan Cornelisz Verspronck at the left details the lace and the patterned damask dress.

How did the artists accomplish this?

In museums I have crept ever closer to see if I can determine the technique that so perfectly evokes the lace and fabric but looking closely, all I can see is blobs of paint and, seemingly, chaotic brushstrokes. At this point I usually see a guard moving determinedly in my direction so I back up, no clearer in my understanding than before.

I invoke this bit of art appreciation because it came to mind as I reached the bottom of page two of Helen Hemphill's new book, The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones. I had to stop reading in order to drive the entling somewhere and as I reluctantly set the book aside I found myself worrying about the young hero, Prometheus Jones. Was he going to get his money for breaking that horse? He sure was a cool customer facing down those loathsome Dill boys.

Wait a minute, I'm only on the second page of the story and I am totally and utterly committed to this young man and his predicament. How did Hemphill do that? Was it her use of verbs or adjectives? Prometheus hasn't even said that much yet, can it be his "voice?" Maybe it is my fondness for Westerns? How did she do it? How did she pull me in so quickly?

Well, however she accomplished it, I cheered, I gasped, I cried for fourteen year old Prometheus as he and his cousin Omer join a cattle drive headed to South Dakota. They plan to make the return trip to Texas with the outfit so Prometheus can look for his father there.

Prometheus has a gift for working with horses. He knows he has to prove himself to the cattle boss, even though the boss is surprisingly free of the prejudice that Prometheus and Omer have frequently experienced as young black men.

Cattle drives are hard work. Difficult river crossings, long hours in the saddle, snakes, stampedes and the threat of Indian attack mean cowboys are on constant alert. Prejudice and frontier justice are equally lethal as Prometheus discovers when he encounters some old enemies who are determined to have him hanged.

Hemphill's character, Sassy, from her book Runaround is a girl you want to hug. Prometheus is a young man whose hand you want to shake. His sense of fairplay, justice and loyalty is admirable and endearing.

In the author's note at the end of the book, Hemphill explains that her inspiration for this story was a 1907 autobiography of Nat Love, an African American cowboy who began working for cattle drives when he was fifteen years old. With Prometheus Jones, the author has honored Nat and cowboys everywhere.

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill, Front Street, (Nov.) 2008.


tanita✿davis said...

Hee! I get chased back by museum guards, too.

Thanks for this review! Every year in SF at the Cow Palace they have a Black Cowboys Expo, and it's just... cool. A lot of people have no idea that there were people of African ancestry even involved with winning the West except by nature of slinging hash and cleaning toilets, so this is a great, great thing to put in a book for a kid who thinks they might like horses. Yay!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Camille, for the good words! I'm thrilled you enjoyed Prometheus and company. HH.

MotherReader said...

Okay, you sold me on the title. And I totally do the same thing with paintings - I want to know how they got the detail. I don't think I'll ever figure it out.