Monday, April 8, 2019

Q&A with Norman H. Finkelstein

Norman H. Finkelstein is the author of The Capture of Black Bart: Gentleman Bandit of the Old West, a new history book for young adults. His many other books include Schools of Hope and Jewish Comedy Stars. He is a retired public school librarian.

Q: How did you learn about "Black Bart," and why did you decide to focus on him in this book?

A: On a trip to California a number of years ago, I came across this amazing story about a very enticing character, Black Bart. I picked up some books about him at a used book store and began a decade long infatuation with the man and his story. 

I got introduced to James B. Hume, the imaginative and relentless Wells Fargo chief detective who ultimately tracks down Bart. It's truly a great example of dogged police work. 

My goal in my books is to "fill holes" in young readers’ awareness of American history and my topics are sometimes out of the mainstream. 

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Much of the research for the book was done using contemporary newspaper articles. They were invaluable in setting a "time and place" for the story. I had to carefully vet the stories, however, since newspaper accounts were not always fully factual. 

A great source was a book written by James B. Hume which provides a lot of specific information. The History Room at Wells Fargo headquarters was also a very valuable resource. I learned a lot about how criminal investigations became professional with the work developed by James B. Hume. 

Also, I was as amazed as I hope readers will be when they discover the "true" story of Black Bart and his gun. 

Q: The book includes a variety of photos and documents--how did you find them, and how did you choose the ones to include?

A: I love doing photo research for my books (sometimes even more than writing!). Again, photography in 1870 was not what it is today so there really weren't all that many photos of Bart and Hume. Again, the wonderful archivists at Wells Fargo were extremely helpful and gracious. 

The Library of Congress also had some very useful secondary photographs to help illustrate the time. My publisher, Chicago Review Press, then created the map which I hope readers will find useful in "seeing" where the important events of the story take place. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: Readers often can't believe this is a true story. And that's my mission - to make them realize that sometime truth is stranger than fiction. The story itself provides readers with a glimpse into life during California's gold rush era and the importance of Wells Fargo stagecoaches in connecting the disparate communities of that (then) sparsely populated part of the United States. Of course, I hope readers also enjoy the "cat and mouse" game played by Bart and Hume. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm awaiting the publication of my newest book in May, Union Made: Labor Leader Samuel Gompers and His Fight For Workers' Rights (Calkins Creek). Other than that, I am, as the old vaudevillians used to say, "currently at liberty." I have some "brilliant proposals" circulating out there waiting for an intelligent publisher to make a move. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Capture of Black Bart was truly a fun book to research and write. Criminals are not always a very sympathetic bunch, but Bart's derring-do outmatched his personal failings as a husband and father. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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