‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles (2016) – 209 pages
‘News of the World’ is a simple tale that takes place in 1870, five years after the Civil War. Captain Kidd who is in his early seventies makes a living travelling around Texas reading the current news of the world to groups of men and women in places that don’t have newspapers. At one stop he encounters a ten year-old girl Johanna who had been kidnapped by a tribe of Kiowa Indians four years ago. The Indians had killed the rest of her family, and she has been living with the tribe and has adopted many of their ways. She now has been rescued, and the Captain is asked to take her along down to San Antonio so she can live with her only known living relatives, an aunt and uncle.
The story is told in dignified and stately fashion, and it reminded me of the classic cowboy movies of the 1940s and 1950s like ‘Red River’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Stagecoach’, and ‘The Searchers’. It also brought me back to the TV westerns of the early 1960s. We all knew the good guys were going to win by the time the TV show ended, because they would be back next week same as always. It was all quite predictable but we didn’t care; we watched them anyway. We took comfort in the inevitability of the conclusion. This was manifest destiny.
The girl Johanna is used to Kiowa Indian ways and starts out wild and unfriendly and doesn’t talk, but gradually after a gunfight with some bad guys and other mishaps on the open road she slowly learns to trust the Captain, and the Captain learns to trust her. This plot is one of the oldest and one I have run across repeatedly starting with ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, but it is still affecting when done well as it is here.
The author Paulette Jiles is also a poet, and it shows in the precision and simplicity of her language. Unlike some other works of fiction by poets that I have read, her characters are down to earth and well-grounded in day-to-day prosaic reality. I had no problem empathizing with her characters.
I do believe this is a fine novel for full grown adults, but I would especially recommend ‘News of the World’ to high school students or those who don’t read a lot of novels. Its simple understated charms should win over a lot of readers.
Some of us more heavy-duty readers may believe we have encountered this novel somewhere else before.