You wouldn’t think that taking a moment to appreciate a woman’s well-formed derriere could go so horribly wrong, but in Joe R. Landsdale’s fantastic Western novel, “Paradise Sky”, it’s that simple (if somewhat mischievous) act that throws Willie Jackson into a bloody life of soldiering, battling hostile Apaches, gunfighting, accidental cannibalism, and revenge … all while riding a horse named Satan.
You see, Willie Jackson is a teenaged black man in late 19th-century East Texas, and the son of recently-freed slaves. More to the point, the well-formed derriere belongs to a white woman whose husband is Sam Ruggert, a ruthless and bitter former slave owner and Civil War veteran who fixates on people who’ve wronged him to a pathological degree that rarely results in happy endings.
And Ruggert caught Willie glancing at his wife in an ungentlemanly fashion…
Willie narrowly escapes Ruggert’s eager lynch mob and returns to his family farm. Knowing what passes for “justice” for black men in the South, Willie’s father gives him an old revolver and tells him to run away for good. That doesn’t quite go as planned, and when Willie doubles back to his family homestead, he finds that Ruggert and his posse burned it to the ground … with his father still inside.
In trying to put some distance between himself and Ruggert, Willie discovers that he’s a poor at horse thieving. As a result, he is captured by Tate Loving, a reclusive and highly-educated rancher whose time in the Confederate Army caused him to eschew both God and racism, but left him with other more lethal and practical skills. Seeing something of substance in Willie, Loving takes him under his wing rather than shoot him. Still a wanted man, Willie hides out on the Loving farm for a few years while Loving teaches him to read, write, and identify the constellations. He also teaches Willie how to ride and shoot like a Comanche, and Willie has a natural talent for both.
But even after years, Ruggert still seeks revenge against Willie, and eventually he is found by Ruggert’s allies while lying low on Loving’s ranch. This forces Willie (now in his early 20s) to light out quick with a new name, Nat Love, and Ruggert hot on his trail. Though he’s on the run again, this time he’s got a far more dangerous skill set; one that eventually earns him the moniker “Deadwood Dick”.
Crunch is always hungry. Massive, ruthless, and homeless, he struggles to survive while building a hatred for all around him. He preys on the street’s weakest, while everyone else lies beyond his aimless rage. Until one day he finds a way to punish anyone and everyone. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the way found him … and he has perhaps bitten off more than even he can chew.
And though “Paradise Sky” can be appreciated purely as an adventurous Western novel, there are some pretty strong themes running throughout. Obviously, race in the Old West is a big one. African Americans at best play a minor supporting role in most Western stories and histories, though it’s estimated that black men and women accounted for roughly 20% or more of that region’s population as soldiers, ranchers, cowboys, tradespeople, and business owners during the Old West era. In addition to providing a great story, Landsdale introduces numerous interesting and entertaining African American characters trying to make a living in the Old West. Some are purely fictional while others are lifted from history (including Bass Reeves). Their tales help the reader see the well-worn tropes of the Old West from a new, and sometimes unsettling, perspective.
On the subject of historical accuracy, it should be noted that Deadwood Dick is an actual character featured in numerous Beadle & Adams dime novels published during the Old West era. Though several people laid claim to being the actual Deadwood Dick, Landsdale smartly hangs his hat on the real-life Nat Love, who was born a Tennessee slave in 1854 and earned the name Deadwood Dick after winning a shooting and riding contests in the famed town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory in July 1876 (depicted in “Paradise Sky”). Eventually settling down as a pullman porter, Love wrote an autobiography in 1907, but like so many cowboy autobiographies of that time, it’s impossible to sift the hard facts from an aging cowboy’s highly fanciful interpretation of events.
Though with respect to enjoying “Paradise Sky”, knowing the historical truth behind Deadwood Dick and Nat Love matters not at all. Landsdale skillfully mined the source material (be it historical or fictional) and crafted a smart, fast-paced, and rollicking Old West adventure.
About Joe R. Landsdale
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than three dozen novels, including The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, The Bottoms, and A Fine Dark Line. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and nine Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas.
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