News of the World by Paulette Jiles
In this day of receiving world news the instant it happens, often as it is happening, it’s hard to imagine how and when news was received in small isolated towns in the post-Civil War days.
Author Paulette Jiles takes us to a time and place in our country’s history, 1870, as we meet Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who earns his living reading the world’s news to rapt audiences in the territories of north Texas. The novel is about a precious long-gone time when the news was a rare commodity and an expert reader like Captain Kidd could both inform and entertain his eager crowds.
The captain is an honorable man and veteran of two wars who printing business has gone bust, whose wife has died and whose daughters are grown and married. After a Wichita Falls reading, an acquaintance offers a $50.00 reward for the return of a 10-year old white girl who was captured by the Kiowa to her only relatives some 400 miles away, near San Antonio. Despite grave reservations, Kidd agrees to make the journey, not so much for the reward but because it seems the honorable thing to do.
The girl, Johanna, is sullen, prone to running away and remembers nothing before her time with the Kiowa tribe. She mourns her Kiowa mother, her family, her nomadic life. The Captain, while at times exasperated by his charge, is a tender-hearted man who does his best to protect her and ease her painful transition back into the “civilized” world.
Johanna is a hellion from the start. To prepare for their journey, a group of Wichita Falls whores try to bathe and dress her. At the end of the bath, the tub is on its side and dripping water onto the red-flocked wallpaper in their receiving parlor. So begins the journey for the Captain and Johanna, pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas and the reconciling of vastly different cultures, as Kidd has to explain to her when she is all set to collect a white man’s scalp, that “this is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done. Johanna doesn’t speak English, eats with her hands and knows how to use a revolver. Her skills serve them well as they encounter violent weather, bandits and Comanche raids. At a crucial moment, she proves to be a fearless warrior.
As well as the adventure of their journey, there is persistent suspense throughout as to what will happen to Johanna when she and Kidd reach their destination. It goes without saying that the young girl and the older man develop a close bond and become trusting friends.
If you are a fan of the movies True Grit (a girl on a long journey with an older man) and The Searchers (a man’s journey to rescue a white girl who has been captured by Indians), you will probably enjoy News of the World. Author Jiles, herself a rancher near San Antonio, has been praised for her ability to build absorbing dramatic scenes as well as giving her readers authentic descriptions. One reviewer says, “Food, smells, characters encountered along the road, the uneasy towns….all have the feel of truth, of a time and place brought vividly to life.”
For me, as well as the absorbing adventure, the beauty of this book was that it gave evidence of the best and worst in human nature with the good prevailing. As I write this review, there is a steady stream of rain falling in Munds Park. This is the perfect book to be your rainy-day companion.