Owen County author James Alexander Thom, known for historical fiction, dies

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James Alexander Thom, the Hoosier author known for his historical fiction novels that brought the past to life, died Monday.

He was 89 years old, and lived with his wife in Owen County, just across the Monroe County line, in a cozy cabin he built on family land.

Thom was best known for his 1981 book "Follow the River," about the 18th-century escape and journey of Mary Ingles, who had been captured by the Shawnee and made the 400-mile trek home. It was later made into a movie.

James Alexander Thom at his Owen County home in March 2021
James Alexander Thom at his Owen County home in March 2021

Thom won many honors, including induction as a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame and was an Indiana Authors Awards Lifetime Achievement Honoree and National Winner.

But it was his humor, graciousness and easy connection with people that stuck with those who met him.

"He treasured books only second to human beings," said Dark Rain Thom, his wife of almost 33 years.

James Thom was born May 28, 1933, in Gosport to medical doctors. The family later moved to Indianapolis, where he attended Arsenal Tech High School and then served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War.

Living history:The history of James Thom's Owen County cabin

Once Thom returned, he needed a way to process what he'd experienced, Dark Rain said. Writing helped, and he was encouraged to do that as a student at Butler University. He became close enough with some of his professors that Dark Rain said the couple visited them 30 to 40 years after he'd gone there.

The craft suited Thom. He'd disliked his stint at an insurance agency, his wife said, and he spent time working for newspapers, including the Indianapolis Star, and other publications. One of the latter was "Nuggets," a magazine containing words of wisdom at funeral homes that comforted those who'd lost loved ones.

Thom's knack for connecting with readers during deeply emotional events would continue as he began writing historical fiction — a passion that would be a major part of the rest of his life.

"He handled aging with a lot of aplomb, and he kept working, of course, past the point when a lot of people may set the keyboard down," said friend Dan Carpenter, who formerly worked as a columnist and reporter for the Indianapolis Star.

Success as a novelist

Thom came across the story behind "Follow the River" in the late 1970s, he told a reporter in 2021. He'd been working on his first historical fiction novel called "Long Knife" about George Rogers Clark, who led an army to conquer the territory between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

"Follow the River" made the New York Times bestseller list. Forty years after its release, it had sold about 1.3 million copies.

“The basic thing is that this was a true story and people have found it utterly inspiring. I've had thousands of fan letters from people who have been encouraged to go on through tough situations because of the story," Thom said then.

Thom's favorite ride:Local writers' comfy old Jeep seems blessed by the spirits

As he continued in the genre, Thom became known for his commitment to historical accuracy. In all, he's written about 15 published books, his wife said.

Once, he told Dark Rain, he stood in a pond for six days during the winter to experience what an army would have felt while traveling through a flooded area. He ate bugs, worms, bark and roots to understand how protagonist Mary Ingles from "Follow the River" survived.

"I said, 'Well, at least you'll never complain about my cooking,'" Dark Rain said. "That became a favorite line of his when he would tell the story. And he didn't complain."

James Alexander Thom at his Owen County home in March 2021
James Alexander Thom at his Owen County home in March 2021

Early on in Thom's novel career, he quoted another writer who turned out to be inaccurate and from there decided to do his own in-depth research, Dark Rain said.

"That was it. Even if he interviewed or read everything somebody else had, he would go and look up their sources and make sure that he didn't make any more mistakes," she said. "He said if you make one historical mistake that the rest of the world has heard forever, there will be one person that knows the truth and will shoot you down."

Thom's extensive research also led him to his soul mate. He spent years with Dark Rain's tribe of Shawnee to learn about the chief and warrior Tecumseh but didn't meet her until later.

After "Panther in the Sky" came out, Dark Rain, who is a member of the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band, met him when she participated in the ceremony to make Thom a member of the Moon Society, an honor in which spouses and other non-Native Americans are accepted into the tribe.

"As I am walking around him sprinkling tobacco on him, he looked in my eyes, and I don't know what he grabbed ahold of," Dark Rain said. "I only know that he never turned loose."

The two married a year to the day they met, she said.

The cabin and art Thom created

The couple has lived in a log cabin near the Owen-Monroe county border on land that James Thom's mother gave him next to her property. Using materials from a repurposed structure found at a garage sale, Thom built a home to fit in a treeless nook in the midst of a woodsy area.

Thom's artistry was apparent throughout the home and especially on the kitchen floor, where he used pieces of a red elm that had died.

Carpenter called the couple close and collaborative. Dark Rain is a writer, and her husband drew the illustrations for her book "The Shawnee: Kohkumthena's Grandchildren."

Thom wasn't one to sit still, so when he wasn't writing novels, he'd pull out his pocket knife and carve something gorgeous or funny, Dark Rain said. His humor extended into letters he mailed to friends, including limericks and acerbic wit he saved for comment on politicians, Carpenter said.

"He was always top drawer," Dark Rain said. "When he did something, he did it wholeheartedly."

Reporter Laura Lane contributed to this report.

Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or d.bongiovanni@indystar.com. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bestselling historical fiction author James Alexander Thom dies