Reviewed by Gerard Healy
A great story by Paulette Jiles, set in Texas in the 1870s and featuring two captivating main characters. We follow the long, difficult journey back to her surviving relatives of ten-year-old Joanna Leonberger and elderly widower Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. She has spent four years with the Kiowa tribe, who abducted her after killing her parents and sister.
Captain Kidd earns his way by stopping at small towns in rural Texas and reading excerpts from newspapers, for a small fee, to an appreciative audience. He has the age and authority to command respect from this motley lot of listeners. We learn of his experiences as a soldier; first in the war against the British in 1816, then against the Indians in the 1840s. As we come to learn, there’s fight in the old dog yet.
Contrasting his age but complementing his warrior background, Joanna is a surprise packet of resourceful ingenuity in the heat of battle. She has absorbed many of the traits of her adopted Kiowa tribe and has seemingly lost most of her earlier memories. As one character puts it, she is a creature between two worlds, belonging to neither in a sense. One of the real strengths of the story is the way the writer develops the relationship between Kidd and Joanna; gradually, sensitively and in a believable way.
An interesting effect of looking at our world through Joanna’s eyes is that we come to see how quaint some of our customs are, such as wearing dresses or eating with a fork.
The harsh landscape, rugged cliffs and swollen rivers of frontier America are a great setting for the struggle between good and evil. A further problem is that, as Kidd puts it, “There was anarchy in Texas in 1870 and every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (p 126). Jiles introduces a particularly nasty character in the blond-headed man and his two Caddos henchmen. They are intent on buying or stealing Joanna for the worst of reasons.
Later we meet another pair of loveless, mercenary characters who put Kidd in an ethical quandary, where his basically upright moral centre is challenged. Along the way an assortment of interesting folk pop up. There’s Mrs Gannet, a 45-year-old widow, who runs a livery stable, who catches Kidd’s eye with her kindness and girlish waist. Britt Johnson is a black man who drives wagons and rescues abducted children from Indian tribes. It is he who persuades Kidd to transport Joanna back home. We also learn of Kidd’s late wife Maria and his two daughters’ families and the toll the Civil War has taken on them.
Another commendable feature of the writing is the convincing detail about life in post-Civil War Texas. The horse was essential to getting about and the writer’s well-researched knowledge of this topic adds credibility to the story. Also, worth noting are her insights into local politics in Reconstruction Texas where emotions ran high for rival factions and gun laws were controversial. Details about land title under Spanish colonial law and the running of a printing business, Kidd’s occupation before the war, seem authoritative as well.
Another thumbs-up should be awarded for the portrayal of Native American customs and languages. For example, the account of the Comanche and Kiowa cutting the telegraph lines was novel. When they repaired it with horse-hair the line wouldn’t work, but no-one knew where it had been cut. “They well knew Army orders came over the telegraph wires.” (p 73).
One of the quirks employed by Jiles is a lack of punctuation marks around dialogue, which takes a little time to adjust to. When she mixes the innermost thoughts of a character, it occasionally needs a re-read to pick up the meaning. These cogitations reveal much about a character, of course. Nevertheless, the story flows along smoothly for most of the time.
A subtle theme of the novel is the psychological journey that both Kidd and Joanna undertake as they traverse the physical distances. At the beginning, Kidd is growing weary of the world and its failed causes and is impatient to finish his readings and move on. Gradually, as he wrestles with his conscience about doing the right thing by Joanna, he re-enters the world. He has something to live for. Joanna has been taught by life to beware the stranger and suspect others’ motives. She begins the rebuilding of trust in others through Kidd and other caring adults.
Another theme is people’s need to be taken out of their everyday worlds into realms far away in time and place and Kidd’s readings give them this opportunity. From advances in science to stories of exotic lands and brave adventurers, they crave the glimpses into other possibilities that such stories provide. And aren’t we very similar?
I found this a thoroughly engaging story that I’d recommend wholeheartedly.
Paulette Jiles was born in 1943 in Missouri and grew up in small towns. After University, she worked in Canada for ten years for the CBC. She won an award for her poetry book ‘Celestial Navigation’ (1984) and has written several novels and a memoir. ‘News of the World’ was a finalist in the National Book Awards for Fiction (2016) and is being made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Jiles lives on a ranch outside San Antonio, Texas.
News of the World
by Paulette Jiles
ISBN: 978 006 301 195 3
$16.99 (PB); 240pp