James Alexander Thom has been given The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Lifetime Achievement Award. It is difficult to imagine a more deserving recipient. Many fine newspapermen say they will someday write a great novel, but Jim Thom is one of the few who really did it. After a distinguished service as a reporter for The Star, Thom warmed up with a novel based on the Indy 500, but then he really got serious with the heart-stopping story of a woman whose only strategy was to Follow The River and make her way over seemingly impenetrable mountains and forests to her home and freedom.
Since that triumph of a book, Thom has written a series of powerful historical novels native to our land and culture, from Native American and Civil War tales that are not only great story-telling but also impeccable history. My own favorites are Panther in the Sky, based on the life of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and The Red Heart, a dramatic retelling of a true story of a young girl’s kidnapping by the Delawares. In the course of his research for the Tecumseh novel, Thom met and married the beautiful Shawnee woman Dark Rain, and collaborated with her on the novel Warrior Woman and a book on writing historical fiction.
Many of his fans will arm-wrestle you to the ground proclaiming that his best works are those set in the Civil War era (Saint Patrick’s Battalion, Fire in the Water), but all will agree that no one delves into our American past and comes up with fictional pearls to match those of Jim Thom. He not only does his research by means of books and interviews, he puts himself through the ordeals of his characters to verify their deeds. He once filled his bathtub and sank below the water to breathe through a straw in order to test if a character in his novel could have done that when his paddle wheeler sank in the Mississippi river.
Jim and Dark Rain live in a log cabin in the woods in Southern Indiana – I am not talking about an architect’s version of an updated luxury imitation of a historical fantasy, I am speaking of a “real,” genuine cabin in the woods, made of logs, built by hand – or hands, both of them belonging to Jim. From his porch you do not see a highway, or a building, or a paved road. You see the forest primeval. Where he lives is simply an expression of who is – “the real thing.” So is his wife, Dark Rain, the storybook companion such a man deserves. They both look the part – Jim, his Marine-tested body in good shape, his white beard glowing; Dark Rain’s black hair cascading down her back in full glory.
They not only “look the part” of genuine flesh and blood incarnations of the best of the American spirit, they live its ideals. I know. When I first moved back to Indianapolis after sixty-one years away, I had the good fortune to meet them early in my re-settlement days. In those first shaky months I was told I might need a surgery, and when Jim and Dark Rain heard of this, they volunteered to come and be with me during the ordeal. Fortunately, the surgery was not required, but I will never forget the offer of aid and comfort from two new friends who proved to be as genuine as their image of hardy frontiers people, the Americans we always hope are still here among us.
This is what I would have said had I been given the opportunity to present Jim Thom with his lifetime achievement award.
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Dan Wakefield was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.