12 Feb Literary Fiction Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Both Inspiring and Intimidating
As an author attempting to grow as a writer, reading News of the World by Paulette Jiles is both inspiring and intimidating. This beautifully written work of literary fiction combines the elements of setting, plot, character, and theme into one deeply satisfying whole. Even the author’s choice of dialogue without quotation marks serves to bring the narrative skin-to-skin with the spoken word of the characters. The result is a type of poetic fusion that connects the reader intimately to the story.
Set in 1870 Texas, in the Turbulent Reconstruction Era
Set in 1870 Texas, the book takes place in the midst of the turbulent Reconstruction era.
All was in flux: a soldering aid that promotes the fusion of two surfaces, un unstable substance that catches fire.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a 70-year old widow and veteran of two wars. He’s also a former printer who lost his business in the depressed war economy. He drifts from town to town, reading aloud the news of the day to assemblies. He charges a dime for admission to earn his livelihood. We learn of his condition in chapter one.
His life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled…A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas and he did not know what to do about it except seek quiet and solitude. He was always impatient to get the readings over with now.
Brit Appeals to Captain Kidd’s Honor and Compassion
In such a frame of mind, the Captain read to a gathering in Wichita Falls when Britt Johnson, a freedman and freighter, interrupts him. Brit had just returned from Indian territory. While there, he rescued a young girl captured by the Kiowa Indians. The Kiowa had taken her after they killed her parents and sister in a raid four years prior.
Britt has brought her back from the territory and across the flooded Red River. It’s the second time he’s made the trip. The first time, his wife and children had been taken captive, and he’d gone to bring them back.
Britt had taken on the task of rescuing others, a dark man, cunning and strong and fast like a nightjar in the midnight air. But Britt was not going to return this girl to her parents, not even for fifty dollars in gold.
Despite the distance and dangers of the 300-mile journey, Britt appeals to Captain Kidd’s honor and compassion to transport the girl the rest of the way to her aunt and uncle in Castroville near San Antonio. Captain Kidd’s conscience gets the best of him. He is convinced to take the assignment when he understands that as an old man with connections to the people around San Antonio, he is the obvious choice. Nevertheless, we learn that,
As for protecting this feral child, he was all for it in principle but wished he could find someone else to do it.
When Captain Kidd first sees the girl, she sits hovered in a blanket in the back of Britt’s wagon. She’s wearing a feather necklace and glass beads. He thinks,
She had no more expression than an egg.
A Chasm Exists Between the Two Travelers
Captain Kidd addresses the girl by her German name, Johanna. She refuses to ride in the wagon and to wear the shoes she’d been given by the women in the Wichita Falls brothel, who had cleaned her up, deloused her, and dressed her in white people’s clothing. She attempts to escape back across the river in Spanish Fort, when the couple watching her fell asleep.
A chasm exists between the two travelers. They are opposites in age, experience, culture, and motivation. But the author describes each tiny incident on the journey that draws them closer together in trust and affection.
He teaches her some English words and how to eat with a fork and spoon. She calls him Kep-dun and later Kontah, and refers to herself as Chohenna. He discovers that she recognizes some German words. She speaks of Tante Anna and Oncle Wilhelm, and says Ja, and then Mama, Papa, Todt. The Captain also discovers that Johanna knows how to take the safety lock off of a gun. He also learns she is wise in the ways of reading the landscape and traveling undetected through dangerous territory.
When two Caddos who’ve been following them since Wichita Falls approach the Captain in Dallas, the man named Almay threatens that he wants to buy the girl and will get her on the road if Kidd won’t set a fair price. The Captain agrees to meet him at 7:00 the next morning and then flees with Johanna that night, taking an alternative route to Durand.
“No scalping…It’s Considered Very Impolite!”
In the ambush that follows, Kidd and Johanna find themselves without sufficient ammunition to defend themselves against Almay and his men. The Captain learns of Johanna’s cunning as a warrior when she fills the empty shotgun shells with dimes collected at the last reading. She then loads it, increasing the explosive power and range of the shotgun. After they manage to kill Almay, Johanna’s actions alarm the Captain, when she tears off with a knife to take his scalp.
No. Absolutely not. No. No scalping…it’s considered very impolite.
This incident reminds the reader of the cultural challenges this girl will face when Kidd returns her to her family.
Every Man Did What Was Right in His Own Eyes
The author weaves brief passages of historical context into the narrative. Thus, she alerts the reader to the extraordinary nature of the journey, as well as the times. We also learn how the law has become subject to circumstance.
Raiding parties of young men had their own laws and their own universe in which the niceties of civilized warfare did not count and an old man and a young girl were fair game to them, for in the Indian wars there were no civilians.
There was anarchy in Texas in 1870 and every man did what was right in his own eyes.
Landscape as Character
Jiles treats the landscape as a character. It can become protagonist or antagonist, as it changes on the journey from north to south. She describes the setting in poetic language, never contrived or forced. In the opening chapter, where Wichita Falls is experiencing historic flooding, she writes:
Long bright crawls of water slid across the livery stable floor and took up the light of the lantern like a luminous stain and the roof shook with percussion of drops as big as nickels.
And on the road to Lampasas, she writes:
The sun came up blood red in the clearing sky. The country was high and flat with an occasional shift in the landscape. They were exposed. They were the only thing moving in all that horizontal world.
He was Drawn Back into the Stream of Being Because There was Once Again a Life in His Hands
As the journey progresses, the reader catches glimpses of the attachment the Captain is developing for Johanna. We can see how she’s changed his life. Regardless of his inner struggle to justify why he should be the one responsible for her, he does not want to abandon her.
We see him warm to her, despite his confusion over how to bridge the cultural gap between them.
Now it was different and he was drawn back into the stream of being because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered. The strange depression and spiritual chill he had felt back in Wichita Falls was gone. But he objected. He was an old man. A cranky old man. I raised two of them already. A celestial voice said, well do it again.
And later, when the “bad water lady” humiliated Johanna for bathing unclothed in public, he wanted to reach out to her.
He would like to kiss her on the cheek, but had no idea if Keowas kissed one another, or if so, did grandfathers kiss granddaughters. You never knew. Culture was such a minefield. He patted the air with a gentle motion. Sit. Stay.
Joy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy…and he recalled how dull his life had seemed before he came upon her in Wichita Falls. He saw her bright, fierce little face break into laughter when the crowd laughed.
She Realizes He’ll Leave Her Behind and Accepts it with a Stoicism that Breaks His Heart
As they grow nearer their destination, worry plagues the Captain. How will he turn Johanna over to her family? He fears they will not realize the trauma she has suffered. He doubts whether they will accept that in her mind she is a Keowa, the little girl called Cicada, “taken from them by the Indian Agent, Three-spotted’s little blue-eyed girl.”
When they reach Castroville, the Captain points ahead and says to her “Onkle, Tante”. At that point, she realizes he’ll leaver her behind. And, she accepts it with a stoicism that breaks his heart.
She understood the tone of his voice and the stiffness of his arm. Somewhere ahead were strange white people she could remember as if in poorly lit lantern slides called aunt and uncle and they were going to them. The rest she could figure out for herself, but not why, or where Kontah would go.
Before the story is resolved, the Captain must make difficult choices that will affect Johanna’s future as well as his own. I won’t spoil the ending. However, from start to finish, I found in this book a satisfying story as well as a work of fiction to be studied and emulated.