Wednesday, May 18, 2022

News of the World

After graduating from University of Missouri-Kansas, author Paulette Jiles (b. 1943) was employed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Her original novels and poetry collections include Waterloo Express (1973), Blackwater (1988), and The Late Great Human Road Show (1986). After extensive travels, Jiles settled in San Antonio, TX in 1991. My first experience with the author is her western News of the World. It was published in 2016 by William Morrow and adapted to film in 2020 by Universal Pictures and Netflix International. The movie, starring Tom Hanks, won Academy Awards in 2021 for Best Cinematography, Score, Production Design and Sound. I've never seen the film, because I'm a reader not a watcher. 

The key to fully experience News of the World is understanding the time period and place in which it takes place. The book is set in 1870 and begins along the border between Texas and Indian Territory. Texas is a political hotbed after Republican Edmund Davis was elected in 1869 as the state's governor, barely defeating Democrat Andrew Hamilton. Tensions were high, the Texas State Police had privileged power, and a civil rights commitment had been made. The introduction of public printers made way for state journals and newspaper to provide official notices. It was a Reconstruction period for Texas.

The book's main character is Captain Kidd, a 71 year-old man and veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. After becoming a widow, Kidd began traveling the country reading national and international newspapers for a dime a listener. His business isn't a lucrative one, so Kidd becomes interested when he's offered money to transport a young girl named Johanna.

Johanna's parents were killed by Kiowa warriors when she was six. After four years of being a captive, she is freed from the Kiowa and placed in the hands of a man named Johnson, who then hands her off to Kidd to take the girl back to her only relatives, an aunt and uncle in Castroville, TX. Johanna's experiences with the Kiowa result in her being a wild child with very little possession of the English language or modern customs. She speaks fluid Kiowa, minimizes animals to food, eats with her hands, and wears primitive clothing. She's a fish out of water with Kidd.

Like any great mono myth, Kidd's journey through Texas brings elements of danger and adventure that transform the elderly individual into the unlikely hero. Kidd must carefully navigate the political landscape, balancing a bipartisan stance while contending with fierce supporters of both Hamilton and Davis. He's also threatened by perverse men who want Johanna for their harem or themselves. When he's not being asked to provide a fee for traveling through towns, he's dealing with Johanna's struggles with communicating with him or her complete recklessness and rebellion. Kidd has a lot to deal with throughout the book's narrative. 

News of the World isn't an action-packed western, but it does have one of the better gunfights I can recall. In fact, Jiles offers a lot of surprising insight on guns, ammunition, load sizes and feet-per-second velocity that I found especially interesting. The gunfight between Kidd and a group of criminals is innovative with the alternate strategy of using dimes in shotgun loads. Beyond this scene, the narrative is mostly verbal jousting. Jiles is much more literary than traditional western storytellers.

This novel provides an excellent history of Texas during this tumultuous time period and compares to today's political rivalries between the parties. As Americans, we continue to fight with each other over allegiances to parties and this book proves that nothing has really changed in 150 years. It probably never will. But, Jiles also provides insight on the historic alienation experienced by children captured by Native Americans and then returned years later to modern society. Jiles credits Scott Zesch's The Captured as an influence. 

Overall, I was deeply moved by News of the World and the relationship formed between Kidd and Johanna. As the centerpiece of the novel, I found it remarkable. I look forward to reading more of Paulette Jiles including her 2010 novel Color of Lightning, which also features the Kidd character.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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