From the perspective of 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 fiction combines the literary 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, in a type of poetic fusion that connects the reader intimately to the story.
The book is set in 1870 Texas, in the midst of the turbulent Reconstruction era, a time when
all was in flux: a soldering aid that promotes the fusion of two surfaces, un unstable substance that catches fire.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a 70-year old widow, veteran of two wars, and 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 and charging a dime for admission to earn his livelihood. We learn in chapter one that
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.
In such a frame of mind, the Captain was reading to a gathering in Wichita Falls and was interrupted by Britt Johnson, a freedman and freighter, who had just returned from Indian territory where he’d rescued a young girl captured by the Kiowa Indians after her parents and sister were killed in a raid four years prior. Britt brought her back from the territory and across the flooded Red River, as he had the first time when his wife and children had been taken captive and he had gone out and gotten 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 and 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, wearing a feather necklace and glass beads. He thought
she had no more expression than an egg.
The girl, who Captain Kidd addresses by her German name Johanna, 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 the captain had left to watch her fall asleep.
From the chasm that exists between the two travelers–opposites in age, experience, culture, and motivation—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—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 and that 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.
In the ambush that follows, Kidd and Johanna are 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, and loads them up, increasing the explosive power and range of the shotgun. When they manage to kill Almay, the Captain is alarmed when Johanna tears off with a knife to take his scalp.
No. Absolutely not. No. No scalping…it’s considered very impolite.
The reader is reminded of the cultural challenges this girl will face when she is returned to her family.
The author weaves brief passages of historical context into the narrative to alert the reader that this journey is not undertaken in ordinary times, but in times where law is 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.
Jiles treats the landscape almost as a character, which can become protagonist or antagonist, as it changes on the journey from north to south. She describes it in poetic language, never contrived or forced. In the opening chapter, where Wichita Falls is experiencing historic flooding:
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.
As the journey progresses the reader catches glimpses of the attachment the Captain is developing for Johanna—how she’s changed his life, despite his inner struggle to justify why he should be the one responsible for her and 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 Joanna had been humiliated by the “Bad water lady” 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.
As they grow nearer their destination, the Captain is plagued with worry about how he will turn Johanna over to her family—whether they will realize the trauma she has suffered and 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 and the Captain points ahead and says to her Onkle, Tante, she realizes she’ll be left behind and 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, but from start to finish, I found in this book a satisfying story as well as a work of fiction to be studied and emulated.