Mother-and-son writing team Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. take on the legendary figure of Nat Love, a black man who fled tedious conditions in the post-war South to become a famous cowboy known for his bravery and skill with both horse and gun.
Distinctively illustrated by Randy Duburke, Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love bursts from the pages with a vibrancy this dramatic character would've appreciated.
Find more books about African-Americans in the Old West.
One thing I love about Nat Love is that he's not perfect. He's a great horseman, but he also gets drunk and tries to steal a cannon. Why is it important to show even the careless parts of his character?
Patricia McKissack: Oh, it's so needed in this day and time. Especially in our world, where everyone knows everything about everybody. You make one slip of the tongue and a billion people know within 20 seconds.
It's amazing to me that the speed with which we correct something is much slower than it is getting it out there. Nat Love's autobiography is still in print, after all these years. As a writer I thought, isn't that amazing! Of course it's been embellished. He loved that part of it.
Fredrick McKissack: I think we'd have done a disservice to him had we glossed over those imperfections. He moved out West in his teens. At 15 or 16 I was living in a house, listening to music, and here's a guy who fought a horse! And drove cattle! I don't know if it's courage or insanity the number of things he was able to do by his mid-20s that the rest of us will never do.
Sometimes, while reading the book, I'd forget that Nat Love was black, because his race didn't seem to matter to his fellow cowboys.
PM: I grew up not knowing there was such a thing as a black cowboy. But not only were they accepted, they were sought after because they were very good at what they did. A lot of them came out of the cavalry. The Nat Love story was well-known, but there were lots of black cowboys out there. I remember having a Native American say to me, "We thought of black cowboys the way we did white cowboys, we saw no difference." That was a rude awakening for me. I thought they would go out and protect Native Americans and make it better, but no, they fought just as hard, they were just as vicious.
FM: I must have been 11 or 12 when my mom was asked to speak in Oklahoma City. My whole family went down, and we were driving along, and there are black guys out there in cowboy boots and cowboy hats—this was the first time I realized there were black cowboys.
So much of the ideas we have about the Old West are based on pop culture and not historical record—John Wayne is the typical cowboy. And we think of the Old West as being filled with grizzly old men, but if they made it to their 30s, that was old. You had to look past race. The guy next to you is the guy who's going to save you from any number of things, getting shot, getting trampled.
This was the first graphic novel either of you had ever worked on—why did you settle on this format?
PM: I was at a conference talking to the editor of Chronicle Books. We'd known each other for a very long time, and she said to me, "You know, I would love to do a graphic novel." I said, "You know, I would, too!" Then I thought, this sounds like something I would like to co-write with my son. I would like to take this and run it by him, which I did, which led to a contract, which led to writing. It was that simple.
FM: I'd just started working on Shooting Star when my mother came along and said, "Hey, would you be interested in this?" I thought about it for maybe a nanosecond and said yes. We had nothing to do with deciding the illustrator, but [Randy DuBurke] is an inspired choice. There are times I just look at the book and think this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. I know it's a hyperbole, but it's true.
Andi Diehn lives in a house full of books in Enfield, N.H. Find more of her work at andidiehn.com.