Thursday, October 6, 2016
Review: News of the World
hardcover, 224 pages
A review copy was provided through TLC Book Tours
Barnes and Noble
Paulette Jiles is best known as the author of Enemy Women, but I have the feeling that News of the World will gain Jiles even more attention. The National Book Foundation just announced the finalists for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction, and News of the World is on the list.
News of the World is a historical novel, a meditation on the strange phenomenon of Indian captives who return as changed people, and a love letter to the power of story. The narrative follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who travels Texas reading the "news of the world" from newspapers, to paying customers. Kidd is stoic, wise, a messenger (his most cherished memories are from his Army years when he was a solitary messenger, carrying essential news). He is traveling and reading the news in Wichita Falls, winter, 1870, when he makes a strange bargain For a single gold coin he will take a strange and wild girl, once held captive by Kiowa Indians, back to her only living relative in San Antonio.
Johanna is ten years old, and was taken captive by the Kiowa at six. Her immediate family was murdered; her only living relatives are an aunt and uncle she probably can't remember. She has forgotten English, and wants desperately to be returned to the Kiowa and her adoptive Indian mother She wants no part of dresses, shoes, or Captain Kidd.
Jiles creates the feel of post-Civil War Texas--a state with dangerous raiders, violent political disagreement, and criminal gangs. It is through this dangerous territory that Kidd must transport a distrustful and unwilling child.
This is one of those rare novels with a central character who is convincing, complex, and yet uncompromisingly moral. As Kidd gets closer to his destination, he and Johanna begin to build trust and understanding--just as he is about to hand her over again to unknown and perhaps untrustworthy strangers.
News of the World blends artistry and beautiful prose style with gritty humor and cultural insight. As I read, the contemporary writer I was most reminded of was Cormac Mcarthy: Jiles has a similar style (fluid, seemingly effortless sentences), but with a slightly less portentous touch. I thought about the wonderful novel True Grit too; rarely has a novelist created a believable, unsentimental, and realistic relationship like the one between Johanna and Captain Kidd.
Jiles also writes with sensitivity and insight about the strangeness of the returned captive; forever changed by life among the Kiowa, unimpressed by houses and things, and with the courage of a warrior.
This is one of the best historical novels I have read; it wears its learning lightly, but the book is steeped in history. Fans of Cormac McCarthy, or readers interested in Texas history will find much to love in News of the World, but so will those who love story, or who simply want to be reminded that there is good in the world.