Note to the Discussion Leader
The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy takes readers on a journey herding cattle along the Chisholm Trail in 1871. Written from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old Black cowboy on his first trail ride, the journal entries help young readers taste the dust kicked up by the herd; delight in the meals of stew and corn pone; experience the chaos of a stampede; feel the fear of an attack by rustlers; and watch young Joshua grow into the saddle of manhood.
Walter Dean Myers, Coretta Scott King and Newbery Honor winner, chronicles the important role of the Black cowboy in America. His trail ride portrait is not the Hollywood image created from countless western movies. The cowboys in Joshua's journal do backbreaking work over endless days followed by night watches to protect the herd.
The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy pumps life into the history of the American West. The Buffalo Soldiers, Wes Hardin, and Bill Hickok walk through the pages of this book. The diverse cast of characters in Joshua's journal shows readers just why the American cowboy was known for strength, individualism, determination, and ruggedness.
About the Book
"No drinking...No gambling...No being stupid...No falling asleep on night watch." Joshua Loper, who at sixteen was the youngest rider in the group, listened intently to the trail boss's rules.
As they bedded the herd down for the first night, one of the more experienced cowboys explained to Joshua that "those beeves will spook if they hear a flea fart." As predicted, the herd panicked and Joshua faced the first of many stampedes and sleepless nights. "When we got back on the trail after breakfast I was feeling like a horse that had been run all night and put away wet." During subsequent late-night watches, Joshua discovered that his singing soothed the cattle as well as his own spirits.
Other lessons came quickly: how to lasso a straggler without severing his own fingers; how to ford a river, eat terrible food, and live without bathing. Flashes of excitement — arguments and gunfights, as well as confrontations with rustlers and Indians — prevented the cattle drive from becoming boring and repetitious.
Joshua Loper, son of a former slave and a free Black man, thought that becoming a cowboy seemed like an impossible dream when he was living on the Slash M Ranch in Texas. Three months later Joshua sensed he "was right in the middle of that dream and riding high." As he reflected on his experiences, Joshua was able to say, "I had learned a lot about what it took to go on the trail with a herd." Walter Dean Myers's contribution to the My Name Is America series describes a diverse group of trail hands who risked their lives preventing stampedes while guarding thousands of cattle from rustlers, lightning, and imaginary frights. But even more, The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy details a young boy's passage into adulthood and adventure.
- At the beginning of Joshua's journal, he writes about why he wants to join the cowboys on the trail and why his mother does not want him to go. What are Joshua's reasons for going? What are his mother's reasons for having him stay?
- What one incident from Joshua's journal do you remember most? Why?
- Joshua writes, "Ain't nobody who went up the trail was talked about like they was a boy. You went up the trail you were a man" (April 30). By the end of the trail ride, how has Joshua changed?
- How does Joshua feel about the Captain? Do the Captain's thoughts about Joshua change by the end of the trail ride?
- Joshua's father taught him how to read. Mr. Muhlen warns Joshua, however, "...not to go washing nobody's face in my learning because that is how people got themselves hurt" (May 17). What did Mr. Muhlen mean?
- Did the characters and actions in The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy differ from the image of cowboys and cattle drives you've seen on television or in the movies?
- In his journal, Joshua Loper introduces readers to many unique terms that describe life on a trail ride. What do each of these words mean?
- On May 14th, Jake tells a tall tale about a trail ride he was on where it got so cold, "...the snakes all froze and folks was using them for walking sticks." Go to the library and read about the tall tale adventures of another cowboy, Pecos Bill. What makes tall tale stories so funny? Write your own tall tale set in the Wild West of 1871.
- Walter Dean Myers gives his readers a flavor of the Wild West through his descriptive language. Billy characterizes one of his bosses as "touchy as a rattlesnake sliding down a cactus plant" (May 13). Why is this a good way of describing someone in a bad mood? Work with your small group to create your own descriptions for people who are:
- Tired or just worn out
- Find out more about African American cowboys, Buffalo Soldiers, and the history of cowboys and cattle drives. Check out the books Walter Dean Myers recommends in the author interview for this novel.
- Music is an important part of Joshua Loper's life. One of his favorite songs and one the cowboys asked him to sing was "Just Before the Battle, Mother." You can listen to a version of the song. Why do you think this was such a popular song with Joshua and the other cowboys?
- Cattle rustlers and thunderstorms were just two of the many dangers the cowboys faced on the trail. List up to six other major dangers. Each member of the group can give a talk or presentation to convince the rest of the group that one particular danger was the greatest.