James Alexander Thom was born in Gosport,
Indiana, on May 28, 1933, to a pair of physicians, Jay Web
and Julia Thom, and it was there in Owen
County that Thom grew up. Thom has served in various positions,
ranging from business editor of the Indianapolis Star
to editor of The Saturday Evening Post, to lecturer
at Indiana University, Bloomington.
However, Thom's love for Indiana's history and landscapes
has kept him in Owen County. He is married to Dark Rain Thom,
a member of the Shawnee National Tribe, of which Thom is an
In one of his early
novels, Long Knife (1979), Thom
chronicles the journey of George Rogers Clark and his quest
to obtain the Northwest Territory for settlers from 1777-1809.
Throughout this journey, Thom inserts brief details of an
Indiana landscape that once was. He focuses mainly on areas
near the Ohio River Valley in southeastern
Indiana, since Clark used the river for navigation. Here,
one character's emotions are affected by the landscape:
Now melancholy seemed to come up
the hill through the sighing treetops on the breeze from
the broad river. It was in the rippling grass in the clearing
and in the deep rushing of the Falls of the Ohio River far
below. It was in the sight of the sun going down at the
end of another summer. (3)
At the end of the novel, Thom offers his own
comments on the present Indiana landscape, in comparison to
its former state:
was dirty. Upriver and downriver, great steel bridges spanned
the Ohio River. Smokestacks jutted into the horizon....
There was no Falls on the Ohio anymore, nor any Corn Island;
locks and dams and erosion,
I knew, had smoothed them out many decades ago. The wide
was slate-gray, fast, and eddying.... My imagination strained
against all this to see the Ohio from Clark's point as the
old soldier had seen it in my first chapter.... But the
sun was descending just as I have described it; the broad
river curved away south and west; the wooded ridges diminished
into the hazy distance. And then, I'll swear, a flock of
martins swooped down the past me toward the river. Yes,
it was that same evening I had described from my imagination.
He strives to show that
the landscape of the Ohio River Valley has changed from an
area filled with trees and scenic views during Clark's time
to an area heavily impacted by human activity.
In his next novel,
From Sea to Shining Sea (1984),
Thom chronicles the whole Clark family's journey across the
United States on the way out West. Part of their journey consists
of a trip down the Ohio River during the icy Midwestern winter,
when the "Ohio was gray as lead, a mile wide, running
fast, thick with floating ice chunks" (168). Thom also
gives a broader view of the landscape by using the vantage
point of a hawk:
A red-tailed hawk soared in the cold air a thousand feet
above the river. In the east the sky was yellow and the
horizon was blue-gray. In the west the sky was deep, clear
blue and a last star was fading. Far below the hawk there
spread miles of lowland covered with water on both sides
of the river,
and where no currents ran there was white-edged ice. The
ice held the tops of bushes and reached in among the tree
trunks of flooded forests.
In the east the ice reflected the yellow of the sky and
in the west it was gray. (316)
This was one of many encounters
Clark would have with the winters of the area. Another such
instance occurred three years later, when he was leading a
group of men across a frigid river:
He could see the textures of the bark of the trees now;
he was close enough to see that lovely gray-green mottle
on the white sycamores and the old gray tatters of hickory
shagbark and the smooth silver-gray of beech trunks, and
oh, how he wanted to touch them once more, how he loved
Thom uses vivid details
to describe the landscape of Indiana as it was in Clark's
day and to convey a sense of wonder at the natural environment.
in the Sky (1989), Thom tells the story surrounding
the life and times of the great Indian chief Tecumseh, who
lived in the Midwest. In the novel, Tecumseh must deal with
the ever-pressing issue of settlers coming in from the East
Coast and claiming the lands of the Indians. He knows the
devastation that the settlers will bring by over-hunting and
For years they had crowded the Shawnees off their lands
farther east, until the nation had congregated here in the
O-hi-o lands above the great Speh-leh-weh-se-pe, the Beautiful
River—the O-hi-o-se-pe, as it was called by most peoples....
Already white hunters and settlers were intruding on Shawnee
lands near the head of the Beautiful River, despite treaties
that were supposed to keep them on the other side of the
One of Tecumseh's solutions
to the intrusion is to move the tribe farther from the incoming
settlers. "Do you not remember," he asks his wife,
"that half the nation long ago had moved beyond the Great
River? Compared with what they had to do, this is not far,
to the White River" (334). Despite Tecumseh's efforts,
the land is eventually sold to Governor Henry Harrison: "For
ten thousand dollars he had bought three million acres of
the land called Indiana, meaning 'Land of the Indians'"
(442). Soon many of the tribes present are either slaughtered
or forced to move to reservations farther west.
historical fiction, Thom also collaborated with photographer
and fellow Owen County native, Darryl Jones, to create The
Spirit of the Place: Indiana Hill Country (1995).
Many of Thom's previous themes are present, including the
settlers' destruction of the natural environment, the displacement
of Native Americans, and a general appreciation of nature.
His words not only reflect his life in southern Indiana, but
also demonstrate how people are connected with their surroundings.
He comments on how parts of southern
Indiana remained unscathed by the movement of the glaciers.
As he notes, the ground there was not "squashed and filled
in the way the rest of the state was" (np). One of Jones'
photographs shows a large group of trees across the back end
of a field, accompanied by Thom's comments on the deforestation
Almost all of what is now Indiana was, less than 200 years
ago, so densely wooded with gigantic hardwood trees that
early travelers complained of the claustrophobic gloom and
the lack of views. Think of cutting down millions of trees
whose trunks were five to ten feet in diameter, just by
swinging axes! (np)
He goes on to comment
on the gift of maize that the Native Americans gave to the
This grain, which in its varieties will grow in almost
any climate or soil, revolutionized the world's food resources,
either by direct human consumption or as livestock feed…Nevertheless,
corn is a great gift, and it is appropriate that Indiana,
"the land of the Indians," is associated in people's
minds with corn. (np)
He chastises the way the settlers placed importance
on dividing the land up on paper. "But in the long run,
they will all be dead, the land will still be here, and all
their paper will have proved to be just so much expensive
mulch" (np). Thom uses graphical representations of the
conquest of "the land of the Indians," with the
Native Americans represented as a circle by which food, people,
and animals help one another out and are connected. In contrast,
the settlers after Columbus, referred to as "the boat
people" by Thom's Shawnee wife, are represented by a
straight line. These settlers are only trying to get from
point A to point B and do not care about their methods or
the resources that they have to consume along the way. "And
so the white settlers' straight line of Progress thrust like
an arrow through the native people's sacred circle, and nothing
was ever the same again" (np).
The connection Thom strives to
make through all of his works can best be described in this
statement from a Shawnee chief in Ohio taken from The
Spirit of the Place: Indiana Hill Country: "Our
ancestors were here so long that this very earth is made of
the flesh and bones they gave back to Mother Earth. We don't
simply live on this land, we are this land" (np). This
message finds its way into all of Thom's works and is evidenced
through the detail he uses to describe his beloved Indiana.
Jones, Darryl L., and James Alexander
Thom. The Spirit of the Place: Indiana Hill Country. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1995.
Thom, James Alexander. Long Knife.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.
---. From Sea to Shining Sea.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
---.Panther in the Sky. New
York: Ballantine Books, 1989
"James Alexander Thom." http://www.bsu.edu/english/events
"James Alexander Thom."
Contemporary Authors Online.
The GaleGroup,2001. http://www.galenet.com/
"James Thom." From Sea
to Shining Sea. New York: Ballantine, 1984.
with James Alexander and Dark Rain Thom