Written By: Patricia C McKissack and Frederick L McKissack Jr.
Illustrated by: Randy Duburke
Each era of American history has a distinct color and feel to it – from the black and white clad puritans, to the green camo of the boys in World War II, to the tie-died hippies marching for change. In the graphic novel Best Shot in the West (2012), writers Patricia and Fredrick McKissack and artist Randy Duburke give a new, unique take on the gritty world of post-Civil War America, a time commonly known as the Wild West.
At its core, Best Shot in the West is the story of Nat Love – a former slave who becomes an unexpected cowboy. Starting with Nat’s life on a plantation, the graphic novel quickly transcends to a story of a man who not only traveled the vast expanse of the 50 states of America, but across several of iconic moments in American history.
The story begins when Nat is 11-years-old. The Civil War has ended and he and his family are free, but without prospects. Nat becomes the man of the house but has a taste for adventure, so after winning a bet and earning enough money, he bids his family good bye and set out to make his life in the Wild West.
Soon he finds himself an indispensable hand in a group of cowboys running cattle up and down the western prairies. His life is filled from with stampedes, nights under the stars, shoot outs and even a raid by the Pima Indians – who take Nat in rather than kill him because many of them too were of mixed race. Ultimately Nat settles in Denver, just in time to see another icon of American industry rise – the railroad.
Today, Nat Love is remembered by history as a daring cowboy, but sorting out reality from myth has been tricky for many historians. Best Shot in the West utilizes brief snapshots of his life – from growing up as a slave on a plantation, to becoming famed for his marksmanship, to being captured by Pima Indians – to transport the readers into his story.
The illustrations are strikingly reminiscent of old photos, battered by time. But the stories presented – through fact and historical fiction – tell of a young man determined not only to make a better life for himself but also to have the adventure of his life doing it. These pieces of history also provide a rich touchstone of personal context from which to look at slavery and wider race relations in America during the late 1800’s, the development of the west by pioneers, and the effect of industry on rural life.
But perhaps the most valuable aspect of Best Shot in the West is that it tells the story of an African American cowboy. The problem of visibility (or lack thereof) often creates a barrier for minority students in taking ownership of these pieces of American history as their own. By telling the stories of American people of color, this book provides a story that is accessible to students, and a protagonist that they can identify with whether they share his racial heritage or not.
Cowboys, African Americans in the West, Growing up with financial hardship, Bravery in the face of danger, Believing in yourself.
IN THE CLASSROOM
The text is not full of terribly difficult words, so younger readers can easily digest the adventures of Nat Love, but the story structure itself is a little more complex. The book skips from moment to moment in Nat’s life, creating almost an anthology of stories…not all of which are in order.
This makes piecing together the various pieces of his life an interesting puzzle and will keep younger and older readers engaged. Here are some suggestions for use in your classroom:
- HISTORY: Discuss the interplay between the various points of American history- How did the Civil War impact the development of the west? What would it be like to live from isolated life on a plantation to the full development of the railroad across the country? What kind of periods do you see yourself living through now and in the future? Discuss Colorado History – How did the culture of the “wild west” shape Colorado? How did the Railroads change Denver? How is Cowboy Culture still alive here?
- LANGUAGE ARTS: Discuss the use of non-linear story telling. How does that choice benefit or detract from the story? Discuss representation of People of Color in American literature. How does this story compare to other classic portrayals like in Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or To Kill a Mockingbird?
- ART: Discuss Color Theory – How does the author use black and white and color illustrations together? What is the impact? What does the progression of color throughout the comic tell you about the story?
Woven throughout all the history in Best Shot in the West is a story that shines through of a young man living an incredible version of the American dream. He started a slave and became one of the most famous shots in the west – a celebrity of his time. He was never rich, but he made his aspirations come true, married someone he loved, and created a life that he was proud of when he could have sunk into apathy so easily.
It is this grit that can be used to spark discussions among students about their own aspiration, goals and the obstacles to reach them. By reading about Nat Love’s incredible journey in Best Shot in the West, they will hopefully be better able to see what stands in the way of these dreams, and how can those obstacles be overcome.