Tuesday, October 4, 2016

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widowed veteran of both the War of 1812 and the recent Civil War, now 72, makes his living reading from newspapers to audiences in small northern Texas towns. When he stops to share “the news of the world” in Wichita Falls, the Captain is offered a fifty-dollar gold piece to take a ten-year-old orphan to her remaining family near San Antonio. Four years previously, Kiowa raiders had captured and raised Johanna after killing her parents and sister. Now the Kiowa realize that she isn’t worth the trouble they get from the cavalry so they sell her for fifteen Hudson Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware. “Her (Indian) mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile” when the Army took the girl away. Freighter Britt Johnson, a free black man, featured in one of Jiles’ previous novels, The Color of Lightning, had been hired to transport the girl, but in Texas not everyone accepted the matter of free black men so he feared transporting a white girl and asked the Captain to take the charge.

The girl remembers nothing before her life with the Kiowa, she speaks no English, and she fights all attempts to force her to act like a “civilized” child. Thus begins the tortuous, 400-mile journey the unlikely pair takes through a lawless land. Simply keeping Johanna from escaping is almost a full-time task, but the Captain must also fight opportunists, thieves, and treacherous portages while continuing to earn a living reading in the towns they reach. As they travel together, Johanna begins trusting the man she calls “Kep-dun” and their courage, tenacity, and compassion may be enough for them to survive their challenges. 

The Captain’s life, especially as the father of two girls, leads him to think he might be prepared for their journey. He misses his grown daughters and grandsons yet his reminiscences of them are never sentimental. When recalling his widowed daughter and former son-in-law, the Captain notes: “The man was too big to be a human being and too small to be a locomotive.” The Captain’s widowed daughter “was in reality a woman who affected helplessness and refinement and had never been able to pull a turnip from the garden without weeping over the poor, dear thing. She fluttered and gasped and incessantly tried to demonstrate how sensitive she was. Mason was a perfect foil and then the Yankees went and killed him.”

Johanna is the opposite of the Captain’s widowed daughter. A friend says that she’s “not one thing or another.” The skills she learned with the Kiowa prepare her for survival in a world she doesn’t wish to inhabit while her intelligence, courage, and respect for the Captain may make it possible for her to thrive there if the Captain can assure her safety. 

Jiles’ Enemy Women is one of my favorite historical novels EVER.  I’ve loved her other novels as well, but this one may just surpass them all. It features her signature spare, eloquent words in a remarkable narrative of feats of derring-do and yet the Captain and Johanna rise above plot and prose to capture the novel and the reader’s heart. I’m flat-out flummoxed in my efforts to ascertain how Jiles managed to create two such mesmerizing characters, lead the reader through several harrowing escapades, set up a historical framework that informs as it entertain, and accomplish it all in just over two hundred pages.

Summing It Up: News of the World is pure joy distilled into a western novel set in 1870 Texas. Jiles’ melodious prose always delights, but it’s Johanna, the 10-year-old girl captured by the Kiowa, and the Captain, who takes on the task of returning the girl to her family, that will steal your heart. Would that Paul Newman were still alive to option the book and play the Captain as this novel is destined for the big screen. Paulette Jiles is rock-solid perfect and that’s news the world needs to hear.

Note: News of the World is one of the ten fiction titles longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: October 4, 2016
What Others are Saying:
Washington Independent Review of Books:  http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/news-of-the-world-a-novel

“A powerful, richly realized journey…Captain Kidd belongs in the great pantheon of western characters along with True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn and Lonesome Dove’s Gus and Call’.” -- Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain

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