I have been involved in leading a workshop for the Summer Reading Program for the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library, representing the Indiana Writers’ Center.
Jim Thom is regarded as one of America’s best historical novelists and is a New York Times bestselling author for his book Follow the River. We invited him to be present.
A small but dedicated crowd gathered at the Children’s Maze at beautiful White River State Park on a warm, partly cloudy evening. Segway traveling bikes moved around us and personal trams with families pedaling them moved by to view the gardens and lawns which sweep down to the river.
At the maze huge slabs of Indiana limestone are set in intersecting lines so children can leap over them or find their way through. The wide seats have no backs, but we remained comfortable, surrounding Jim, whose soft voice could be heard well in the rather quiet setting. The people had come to hear the author speak about this book, which follows the disastrous steamboat explosion at the end of the Civil War which killed 1,800 people, including many survivors of Andersonville Prison who were going home. Jim Thom spoke of his research, his own great-grandfather’s experience at Andersonville Prison and afterwards, walking home in terrible health but managing to survive. Many soldiers depicted on board the ship are fashioned after Jim’s great-grandfather soldier, from southern Indiana.
His plot follows the hero of a former book, Padraic Quinn, who as a boy had served as a message carrier in Mexico in the Catholic Irish Brigade which actually fought on the side of the Mexicans. Now Paddy is grown and newly married to a beautiful woman; they are journeying by steamboat to St. Louis for Paddy to meet her parents.
Jim touched on his love of the Paddy Quinn character, who is a journalist (as Jim was) and has lost an arm. He carries his writing table strapped to his good arm. Jim spoke of reader surprises in the book and his treatment of his heroine. The reader does not know if Felice is a victim of the fire on the ship or not; that’s skill on the part of the author.
My only contribution was to briefly examine this art and skill of the author’s writing, which comes to full expression in the scene in the water of the Mississippi River after the horrible explosion and fire onboard the overloaded steamboat. Jim Thom’s ability to handle multiple plot lines, to realistically create solutions for survival, and to handle discussion of the currents and shoreline of the vast river seem incomparable to me.
As to the large knowledge of the big and small points of history which make the story continually interesting to the reader, Jim said this: “Well, these things are picked up and are in your mind, stored there until somehow they come up, pop out and can be used at the right moments.”
And James Alexander Thom knows the right moment as well as anyone writing today.
Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing