Deeply Felt Story of a man’s struggle to free his soul.
Review of Sidney Thompson’s Follow the Angels; Follow the Doves, University of Nebraska Press, 2020.
From 1875 to 1897, Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves rode the dangerous territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma, arresting over 3000 felons, and killing or wounding fourteen bad men in defense of his own life. He was never wounded though he did have his hat and belt shot off in two separate gunfights. Not only was he a brave and fierce lawman, he had such a dogged sense of duty that he even tracked down and arrested his own son for murder, then watched as his boy was convicted and sent off to prison.
Before he ever mounted a horse to chase down his first outlaw, Bass Reeves was a slave. It is Reeves’s life during this shameful period of American history that Sidney Thompson shows us in Follow the Angels; Follow the Doves, the first volume in his Bass Reeves trilogy. To own another human being, to whip him, put him in chains, and sell him and his family off like livestock, slave owners had to believe that their captives were less than human. To get the rest of society to allow them to perpetuate this disgusting practice, they also had to convince everyone else that the slaves were inferior and that slavery was best for everyone. Most importantly, because physical force alone would not keep large numbers of grown men and women in captivity, they had to convince the slaves that their lot in life was the way things should be.
Of course we know that Bass eventually gained his freedom. But to become free he had to break the psychological bonds of slavery that held him tighter than any physical chain ever could. One of the saddest scenes in Thompson’s novel is Bass’s first day as a young field hand. As he takes to the field with the other slaves, Bass’s mother, Pearlee, tearfully tells him—“You a slave, and this is slavery. And what that means is Master Reeves have the right to tell us what to do because he own this whole plantation and everything on it, including me and you and everyone. That be why he’s so busy, why we respect him so much. He take care a us, make sure we eat and get by. Now it’s your turn to do your part, you hear? We here to be thankful.”
With the seed of inferiority planted in his head, Bass begins his life as a servant. He rises from field work to take charge of the plantation’s livestock. Later, he becomes a favorite of the master, William Reeves, when he demonstrates a special talent with firearms. His life changes when he is given to the master’s son, George Reeves, who puts him in chains and has him whipped to let him know his place. Then the younger Reeves takes Bass into the Civil War as his body servant. The young master knows of Bass’s expertise with a firearm and orders Bass to kill Union soldiers. Through his struggle Bass grows physically and emotionally, learning about those who hold him in captivity as he learns about himself. He discovers that his captors depend on him much more than he depends on them. He reminisces that in his life as a slave, he’s had a kind master and a cruel one. Of the two, he concludes that the kind one was the worst.
Though Follow the Angels; Follow the Doves is the first volume of a trilogy, it is a stand-alone story with tension building to a dramatic climax. It is a beautifully written, exciting, and deeply felt story of a man’s struggle to free his soul. I can’t wait for the next installment.