BY ADAM KENT-ISAAC
James Alexander Thom, acclaimed historical novelist, has the wispy white hair and bushy beard of a biblical prophet. In fact, he jokes that he likes to arrive at book signings and announce, “I’m here to autograph the Old Testament!”
Thom, who celebrated his 80th birthday in May, can still chop wood all day long and has the posture and bearing of a much younger man. “Diet whiskey and sugar-free tobacco,” he laughs, are the secrets of his robust longevity.
A native son of the Indiana hill country, Thom was born in Gosport. His mother and father, both doctors, moved the family to Spencer because it had the first X-ray machine in the region. After serving a stint in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and graduating from Butler University, he worked for The Indianapolis Star and Times, eventually leaving the newspapers in the late ’60s to freelance for The Saturday Evening Post and other publications.
It wasn’t until the mid-70s, after he had moved back to Owen County, that his best- known persona, that of historical novelist, began to emerge. His 1985 novel Follow the River, based on the life of Mary Ingles, a young pioneer woman captured by Shawnee Indians in 1755, became a bestseller. Along the way, he became active in Native American cultural and political issues, as well as environmental conservation.
“All of our cultures,” he says, “began with a group of people sitting around a fire and trying to express something.”
After releasing Panther in the Sky, a novel about Chief Tecumseh, Thom was invited to the spring Shawnee “Bread Dance” festival in 1989, where he met his wife-to-be, Dark Rain. They were married at the dance the following year and are still together.
From their cabin in picturesque Owen County, Thom continues to write. He also draws and does wood carvings. (He had an exhibit of his carvings at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center last fall.) And he spends a good deal of time simply looking over the hills at the sunset and reflecting on life.
“Just being alive in this world is such a massive, miraculous blessing,” says Thom. “What we ought to do is try to live to be worthy of it…. That’s the prayer that I give every morning.”