Tuesday, April 17, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I first read Paulette Jiles years ago, when I stumbled on Enemy Women at my bookstore.  I was gobsmacked by that novel, and it remains one of my favorite Civil War novels. 

I've had an advanced reader's copy of this book for a few years.  I was excited to read it, but somehow lost my enthusiasm about 30 pages into it, put it down, and didn't pick it up again until last week. I deliberately picked it for my book group this month so I would finally read it.  It's only a few hundred pages; easy enough, right? Read it in one sitting.  

Yet it still took me the better part of a week to read, and my only thought about that is because I liked Captain Kidd and Johanna so much I didn't want anything to happen to them on their journey.  I just couldn't bear to read a passage that would endanger, injure, or tear Johanna away from the Captain.  So that very reason kept me from reading it a few years ago, and had me taking a week to read a book I could have read in a day. 

It's a simple enough story.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a man in his early 70's who travels the West reading newspapers to audiences. It is, indeed, news of the world. His eloquent, commanding voice, and his choices of which articles to read make him a popular man in his travels.  The Civil War is over, yet fallout remains.  Texas, where this novel is set, is torn apart by political factions, hideouts from the war, and Native Americans attacking pioneers, cowboys, and pretty much everyone. Kiowa Indians are in a fight for survival that sadly they won't win. Captain is asked to deliver ten year old Johanna to her Aunt and Uncle, after being rescued from the Kiowa tribe that killed her parents and sister four years earlier.  Johanna has completely lost any identity as a white child, and is scared, angry, and speaks only Kiowa. She wants to go back to the tribe, which she considers family.  

As Captain and Johanna travel from Wichita Falls through Texas on a 400 mile journey, they slowly get to know each other. Their developing relationship is the heart of the novel, and for me that was the best part, and the most surprising part.  I kept waiting for disaster to strike, and it did, but Captain and Johanna came together and saved themselves in a pretty ingenious way.  My fears of a journey plagued by fire, floods, and attacks were unrealized, and that made me very relieved.  Instead, this novel is about a child who is suffering from PTSD, an elderly gentlemen who has been around (and also suffers from PTSD), fought wars, lived, loved, raised children, and is now continuing to spread the "news of the world" to folks who have little contact with the world outside their towns.

A bigger conversation could be had about the effects of tragedy on small children, and what family means, especially when children are forcibly returned to family that neither cares nor wants them. It's stirred my interest in historical figures Cynthia Parker and Olive Oatman, two women who were returned to white society after living with Native Americans.  Their stories are available in books and films, and are fascinating.  

Rating: 4/6. I'm glad I had the chance to go back and finish News of the World. I love Paulette Jiles' writing style; she says a lot with few words, and her characters  become quite endearing very quickly. You'll not soon forget the Captain and Johanna. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. A National Book Award Finalist. 

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