What a ride – with a seventy-one year old and a ten year old on the road together in Texas soon after the Civil War. Paulette Jiles’ short book – News of the World – has the fast paced adventure of an old Western.
When Captain Kidd agrees to deliver a young blond girl back to her German family in San Antonio, he creates an unlikely partnership. Captured by the Kiowa tribe when she was six years old, the girl only knows the ways of her adopted family. She speaks no English and bridles at the uncomfortable clothes she is forced to wear. Captain Kidd, a seasoned army sergeant and former printer, works like Mark Twain on the road, reading newspaper stories on stage to the interested and illiterate, as he tries to make money in his retirement.
Although the girl, named Johanna by the Captain, is wary and angry, her intelligence and skills in tribal warfare help the Captain overcome their first adversaries, men from another tribe intent on capturing and selling her into child prostitution (“blond girls are premium”). As they continue their journey, Johanna and Kidd bond, with her calling him Grandpa and he protecting and teaching her through a series of adventures – some humorous, some frightening.
The plot line is direct and Jiles provides a satisfying ending, but Jiles’ vivid descriptions are the real story. Her historical notes of the unrest and hardships after the Civil War immerse the reader into another time – the wild West just as it is beginning to develop. Through the relationship between the Captain and the girl, the author cleverly reveals their two disparate backgrounds, while maintaining the common denominators of human kindness and priorities for values worth having.
I came across Jiles’ book just as I finished reading the first book of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The densely packed Justine had left me wanting a story more readable and with a less cynical view; News of the World delivered. Jiles’ book is short and focused, and redeemed my notion of books delivering an escape and possibly some wisdom. One of the phrases I will remember:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”
The News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.