I became familiar with the name James Alexander Thom at age 12, when my mother handed me Follow the River, his novel about the true ordeal of Mary Ingles, the white woman who was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians in 1755 and then made her way home with the Ohio River as her guide.
The book resonated with my mother and me -- it was such a powerful testament and tribute to one woman's strength and courage -- and from our multiple readings, the paperback cover fell off at one point. I know my mother ended up buying a new copy later, but I still have that one worn copy on my shelf in my childhood bedroom at my parents' house.
Now I have a new, unworn copy with a handwritten note from the author, Jim Thom, as I am now pleased to know him. I think of my mother, who died when I was 18, every time I see it on my shelf. If I hadn't been so completely tongue-tied when I first had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Jim and his wife, Dark Rain, I would have attempted to convey just how meaningful it was to meet the author of a book that in many ways encapsulates the love of reading I shared with my mother.
Unfortunately, around Jim and Dark Rain, I am as star-struck as I would be around Johnny Depp, because it's not every day an aspiring writer gets to meet two writers of their caliber -- and Jim's books took up as much space on my mother's bookshelf as she gave to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
But the Thoms make you feel at home instantly with their kindness and hospitality. And their home is a story in itself -- I never thought that just 30 minutes away from Bloomington I'd find a log cabin in the woods straight out of one of Jim's novels. The inside of their home is cozy and cluttered, with furs on the walls and feathers above the fireplace, and two beautiful white cats running the place.
Dark Rain tells me that Jim spends most of his time upstairs, writing, while she works downstairs. And for two people who live in such close quarters together, it must help that they are completely in tune and patient with one another, even if Dark Rain is scolding Jim about the heat (or lack thereof) in the cabin on a freezing day in January.
If you're smart, when you're in their company, you'll sit back and let them talk. So last Saturday, when Steve Higgs, editor and publisher of the Alternative, and I went to the Thoms' cabin for an interview, we let them do just that.
On art and writing: Current projects and collaborations
Jim writes regularly for the Alternative, usually about George W. Bush, or "BOGUS POTUS" and his "horde of barbarians" as he referred to the current presidential administration in his most recent column. It's surprising that he manages to find the time to do this when you consider his massive list of current projects, which includes a new novel, a nonfiction book about how to research and write historical novels, an art show and a screenplay for a documentary on American Indians with Dark Rain.
Many of his readers might not be aware of it, but Jim has as much of a passion for his art as his writing. This month he will demonstrate this with an art show at The Wandering Turtle gallery in downtown Bloomington, where his woodcarvings and other art will be on display.
In fact, he'd rather sculpt than write. "It's easier to get started on a piece of wood than it is on a sheet of paper," he said with a laugh.
Jim, who has been a woodcarver all his life, said his father was his inspiration. "He used to carve little tiny things," he said. "And I used to as well, but now I've gotten into big wood sculptures."
He primarily works with walnut, cherry and maple woods, all from trees that have fallen on their property. "It's really hard but really beautiful," he said. He got into the large abstract sculptures after creating a seven-foot-tall abstract sculpture for the Universalist Unitarian church in Bloomington.
Jim's primary inspiration comes from the wood itself. "You can take a piece of wood and see what the dimensions will be, then you've got this abstract image in your mind," he said. "You just work on it and see how it comes out. Sometimes the shape of your sculpture is determined by the grain of the wood."
Dark Rain is quick to mention what a talented artist Jim is -- the type of subtle compliment they both tend to give each other often. When they talk about collaborating on a project like their book Warrior Woman, they matter-of-factly give each other credit rather than pointing out their individual contributions -- Jim notes that it's Dark Rain's research about her people (the Shawnees), then she points out that she considers him the master writer.
"We have a lot of respect for each other's thoughts, and neither of us has an easily crushable ego," Jim said.
And by the time they were finished with the book, they could no longer remember who wrote the majority of what chapter, Dark Rain said. "I think that's wonderful."
Jim added, "It was sort of instinctive how it would all come together. It was pretty harmonious."
After they wrote the book, Dark Rain had the opportunity to serve as a tour guide to descendants of Nonhelema and Cornstalk, the Shawnee chiefs and central characters of Warrior Woman. It was the ultimate reward, she said.
"Every time you write a book, you begin getting consequences in the present day that grow out of what you've written," said Jim. "It's like the historical story that took place 200 years ago is still going on in the modern world and all kinds of good things happen because you've written the book. And that's one of the best rewards."
On the American Indian: Preserving history and knowledge
One of the positive outcomes of their books is the opportunity to share their knowledge of American Indian history and culture in the classroom. Both Jim and Dark Rain are passionate about increasing the history taught about the American Indians, especially to children studying Indiana history.
For them, one of the most frustrating aspects of the Indiana history typically taught is that it disregards so much of the American Indian's presence in and importance to the state. As Jim puts it, Indiana history "doesn't just start when the white man shows up with his quill pen."
"It has been something that the Native community has been appalled at," Dark Rain said. "Indiana history stops in 1795 so far as the Indians are concerned, unless you get two paragraphs about the great removal. And then that's it. But you've got 50 years of existence of tribal people who are still in villages, and there's no mention of them, or interaction with them, or anything."
She is working with the Indiana Native Affairs Commission to remedy this. The commission is developing a cultural resource center to provide supplemental information for teachers' Indiana history lessons.
Jim noted, "A good teacher can really get a lot out of this period in Indiana history and teach a lot about Indians, but a teacher who knows nothing about them or has no affinity for them or curiosity about them is not going to teach much."
That's why Dark Rain is also working with textbook publishers to make sure that the materials provided to the teachers have, at the very least, factual information -- not pictures of teepees in an Indiana history book, for instance, because as she points out, Indiana Indians didn't even live in teepees.
And although it might take up to a decade for changes in the textbooks, she's willing to wait. "It's going to be interesting, but it's going to be a great outcome," she said.
On the current state of affairs: War crimes and other sins
The positive mood in the room turns sour when the conversation shifts to the war in Iraq. "I'm sure if I took Jim's blood pressure, it would have been over 200 for months and months," Dark Rain said.
But as a Korean veteran whose Marine unit is now on the front lines in Iraq, Jim is not only outraged by the war, he understands firsthand the impact it will continue to have on the soldiers and our country.
One aspect that especially disturbs him are the facts about the soldiers we don't hear about: the number of people suffering from brain damage, the number who come home and commit suicide and the number who desert.
"These are the things that we're going to be dealing with forever, but they're too disturbing to talk about," he said. "Instead, we're talking about how we're succeeding over there, which is an absolute lie. We lost it from the moment we went in."
Dark Rain adds that if the media covered these issues instead, "then people would understand the price we're paying for this war -- not just the billions of dollars, but the price in productive manpower."
Aside from our current president, it seems that John McCain is doing the best job of raising Jim's blood pressure.
"Here's a guy who's running for president saying it's okay to invade someone else's country, unprovoked, if you can make it come out the way you want to," Jim said. "Now this is not good at all."
McCain often says that because of his military experience, he's the best candidate for the Republicans, to which Jim responds: "No. He was a fighter jock. He flew an airplane. He doesn't know anything about running armies. Just the fact that he conducted himself well in a Vietnamese prison does not mean he's necessarily a good war leader."
Jim's fear is that McCain is saying exactly what many Americans like to hear. But if that's the case, he's not sticking around for more invasions.
"If they [Americans] elect another Republican president I think I'd have to leave the country."
Staying awake: Lessons learned
With Jim and Dark Rain, the conversation topics are endless. And though they have many lessons to share, they're still kind enough to be patient with a star-struck fan like me.
I made the faux pas of telling them that I fell asleep reading Warrior Woman the night before our interview (in my defense, I meant to say, "I couldn't put it down even though I was exhausted"). I knew immediately from their expressions that I had made a mistake, but Jim kindly steered the conversation to an article he recently read in Harper's Magazine called "Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading," by Ursula Le Guin. He said it was one of the best articles he'd read in a long time, and when James Alexander Thom recommends an article, you can be damn sure I'm going to read it.
In her essay, Le Guin questions the idea that books are "on the way out," noting that not that many people were ever readers to begin with. Jim mentioned this point in her essay after (I hope) I was forgiven for my silly comment.
So if you don't have the chance to spend time with Jim and Dark Rain, or even the opportunity to embarrass yourself when trying to compliment them, go for the next best thing -- read one of their books. Because, as Le Guin writes:
"In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can't lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won't move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won't move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it ... To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it --everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not 'interactive' with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer's mind. No wonder not everyone is up to it."
Take the challenge and collaborate with Jim and Dark Rain. I started the moment my mother placed Follow the River in my hands and am thrilled to continue.
Alison Hamm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.