When East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale tried to interest publishers in a tale about black cowboy Nat Love (aka Deadeye Dick) in the 1980s, he was told “Blacks don't read and whites don't want to read about blacks.” He went on to write other books to considerable acclaim (The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water), often with protagonists who were minorities, but it wasn't until now that he was able to return to the main character he wanted to explore then and does now in Paradise Sky, a tale set in the post-Civil War era
While Lansdale got his inspiration from Love's own book of his exploits, he took a pretty fictionalized approach to the legendary cowboy's life. In his research over the years, Lansdale says he discovered that while blacks had a lot of experiences in earlier times, “the credit was often given to white frontiersmen” and that according to what he can determine, actually about every third or fourth cowboy was black, Hispanic or Native American.
Speaking to us while on lunch break at a Baton Rouge film set (“They're filming my Hap and Leonard series”), Lansdale described himself as a student of history. “People just did not want to give blacks the credit although when they went out West they got a lot more fair shake there. It doesn't mean that there was no prejudice, but it was really more 'If you can do it, I can accept it.'”
“Really the black soldiers did most of the fighting.” says Lansdale, adding that it was actually Buffalo Soldiers who stormed San Juan Hill. “Actually [Teddy Roosevelt ] gave them credit but when he ran for election he had to back off some of it quite a bit because of the prejudiced era.”
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Deciding to write in the “Mark Twain, tall-tale tradition” that extends the truth with a certain amount of exaggeration and humor, Lansdale says his book takes Love not only through the cowboy and Buffalo Soldier experience but as a marshal as well. As the book starts, the 20-year-old Love is fleeing town on foot after he was caught looking at a white woman's bottom and then stealing a lame horse to try to escape. He's already seen a hanging once and doesn't want to be part of one. A man with the last name of Loving takes him in and teaches him some basic skills – including shooting, riding and gardening. He heads further west after his mentor's death where he meets up with more adventure and marries, although prejudice finds him even there.
Asked who would enjoy this book, Lansdale says “People who like history, humor and action. There's even an element of crime running throughout it. It's probably the longest book I've written. It's the only epic book I've written. It's something that's been stewing with me for a long, long time.”
Joe R. Lansdale will sign his latest book at June 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-524-8597 or visit murderbooks.com. Free.