Nat Love, also known as Deadwood Dick, was born a slave in 1854, but before his death in 1921 he was a cowboy, rodeo performer, author and Pullman porter. His autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, is the foundation for the graphic novel by celebrated authors Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissak, and illustrated by Randy DuBurke, for their first graphic novel. While Love’s writing may have exaggerated his experiences somewhat, it was action-filled with cattle drives, shooting contests, encounters with Native Americans, and meetings with legendary personages such as Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid. The authors include excerpts from Love’s book in order to provide coherence to the story, providing additional dialogue to flesh out several episodes as well as inventing the character William Bugler to place their rendition in context for the contemporary reader.
Du Burke’s acrylic-and-pen full colour illustrations frequently offer a soft focus perspective on much of the action and many of the characters. There are numerous pages where the illustrations are left alone to tell the story, sometimes in full page spreads and others in varied panel format. Abundant use of greens, blues, and yellows evoke the prairie setting while the pages predominantly filled with blacks and greys suggest danger and treachery.
In their note, the authors state that they are not interested in separating the mythology of Love’s story from reality. They want to pay homage to the man and to his life. But while I was reading the storyline I was discomforted by some of the statements presented. I understand the historical era in which it was set, but wondered if perhaps some of the statements regarding Native Americans could have been presented differently. Thinking that I may be overly sensitive on this issue I searched for other commentary. Nambe Pueblo educator Debbie Reese, in her blog, also found some of the content troublesome. While some of her concerns were the result of Love’s own writing style, Reese felt that judicial editing and revisions by the authors would have made this book a stronger and more authentic look at the Wild West and Native American history. She does not recommend the book as a result. I looked to her expertise in validating my own concerns about the book. I am particularly aware of Native American and First Nation issues during this time in Canadian history with the Idle No More Protest gaining more and more support internationally and within my own country. We cannot rewrite the past, nor should we, but perhaps we need to be more sensitive in how that past is presented to young readers today. Nat Love is an important historical figure and his story could have been even more powerful with his comments put into context.