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James Alexander ThomJames Alexander Thom
(1933- )

Hoosier Connection: James Alexander Thom was born in Gosport, Indiana. He received a B.A. from Butler University in Indianapolis and worked in the Journalism Department at Indiana University in Bloomington. He currently resides in Bloomington and has written many historical novels about the early days of Indiana.

Works Discussed: Long Knife, From Sea to Shining Sea, Panther in the Sky, The Spirit of the Place: Indiana Hill Country

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 honorary member.

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:

The air 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 river 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. (527)

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 trees! (319)

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 Panther 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 clearing the land:

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 mountains. (16-18)

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.

Besides writing 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 of Indiana:

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 settlers:

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.

Links: Interview with James Alexander and Dark Rain Thom