This was a good book, and a good fit for our challenge, but not–for me anyway–a great book. It was a great look at an interesting period of time–Texas during Reconstruction–with lots of details about the timeframe. The profession of the main character as an itinerant newsreader means he’s an educated man and an outsider in many of the communities he visits, yet he refrains from expressing opinions on most of the details we learn about the times. Some of his opinions we gather from the way he treats others–in particular his treatment of Britt Johnson, a freed black man whom Captain Kidd treats with respect–but he’s very careful not to take sides, even in his thoughts, in the debate about the new state government or Reconstruction or the Civil War itself, despite having been a messenger during the War.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are currently in Texas.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles was a really good choice in terms of learning something about the geography and history of Texas, and perhaps about the people as well. There were some wonderful descriptions of the landscape as Captain Kidd and the girl Johanna (who he’s returning to her family after her release from Kiowa Indians) travel the 400 miles from Wichita Falls to Castroville, west of San Antonio.
They trotted into the chain of hills that lay southeast of Dallas. They were called the Brownwood Hills. Before daylight they should come to a country cut up by the Brazos River into ravines and sliding red-rock cliffs, covered by live oak which had never been logged out. Some of them were as big around as millstones. He wanted to reach the river by daylight and pull off the road, up high, and watch for their pursuers.Paulette Jiles in News of the World
Jiles gives us some wonderful glimpses of several very interesting characters–some of whom she focuses on in her other books. Her book The Color of Lightning tells the story of Britt Johnson (who was a historical figure), and Simon the Fiddler tells the story of this character who also makes an appearance in News of the World. And these characters are well-drawn enough to make the reader want to know more of their stories.
Perhaps my strongest dissatisfaction has to do with Johanna and the unanswerable question of what she suffered and why she (and other captives historically) wanted to return to their captors. As readers, we always have the sense that it’s at least in part because she was so young when she was captured. Perhaps that’s part of it, and perhaps it has to do with the life that was waiting for her with her relatives in Castroville. But we always also sense that is not the whole story.
The Captain never did understand what had caused such a total change in a little girl from a German household and adopted into a Kiowa one. In a mere four years she completely forgot her birth language and her parents, her people, her religion, her alphabet. She forgot how to use a knife and a fork and how to sing in European scales. And once she was returned to her own people, nothing came back. She remained at heart a Kiowa to the end of her days.Paulette Jiles in News of the World
The Texas State Historical Association site has information that is quite clearly biased, but from it we can at least deduce that Johanna’s age probably had a lot to do with how she and other captives reacted and how they were treated. And Jiles gives us this advice in her Author’s Note:
Anyone interested in the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier should read Scott Zesch’s book The Captured. It is excellent. His book documents child captives from the Texas frontier, including his own great-great-uncle, and in each instance gives the background of death and terror these children endured before they were adopted or claimed within the tribe.Paulette Jiles in News of the World
In the end, News of the World is more the story of Captain Kidd than of Johanna. And of Texas as well, perhaps–how the sharp divide in public sentiment over the Civil War itself, as well as over Reconstruction, affects Kidd’s role as a reader of the news. He tries very hard not to stir up trouble. He manipulates the emotions of his audience in an expert manner to leave them satisfied, with, perhaps, a mild longing to see far off places. But more and more, he finds that people want their own divisive views of current events confirmed, preferably to the the detriment of those who hold opposite viewpoints–essentially, people are looking for a fight. This situation is exacerbated by the removal of all public officials who supported the Confederacy, and the non-existence of suitable replacements.
Sir, there isn’t any local administration. There isn’t any sheriff. Davis’s men turfed him out. There isn’t any JP, there isn’t any mayor, there aren’t any commissioners. Davis and the U.S. Army threw them out. They all had been in the Confederate Army or they were public servants under the Confederacy and so that was it for them. But he won’t send anybody to replace them. So we took on the job. You are accountable to us.Paulette Jiles in News of the World
And into this arena, where Kidd tries to avoid taking either side without aggravating both, arrives Johanna. Her plight touches something in Kidd, and, although resistant at first, he is able to reach her and bring her back. The resulting scene at the farm in Castroville is somewhat predictable, but also satisfying in its resolution.
The little scenic tidbits are lovely and evocative, with local flora and fauna:
Cottonwood catkins had burst and the silky cotton was drifting down the street and piling up in the corners of anything and anywhere. … Overhead nightjars moved and sang their low and throaty songs. They swept low, like owls, and carried the light of the stars on their backs. … He watched two caracara eagles sailing on their black pirate wings, their red hoods and white vests.Paulette Jiles in News of the World
One other bit mentioned in Jiles’s book, is the Carrizo cane along the river.
As in all semi-arid regions the green was all in the riverbeds, the ravines, the stream crossings where water gathered and the wind sailed overhead. Thick colonies of Carrizo cane grew in the little valley of the Lampasas and they shook their glossy plumes in concert.Paulette Jiles in News of the World
This cane was mentioned not only in this book, but also in No Country for Old Men, and in Lonesome Dove, which I’m currently reading. Apparently, the cane is an invasive species that grows very thick and upwards of 8 to 10 feel tall, lining the banks of the Rio Grande. The Texas state government has mandated eradication along the river to improve border security, though there are arguments about funding and methods so there hasn’t been much progress. This site has some nice pictures and some information about efforts to preserve the river itself.
Overall, News of the World by Paulette Jiles was a good addition to our reading list for Texas. It didn’t quite give me the sympathetic viewpoint of the Native Americans that I was hoping for, but it wasn’t a terrible condemnation of those peoples either. It did, however, give us some wonderful insight into the period of Reconstruction in Texas, as well as the landscape from north Texas to San Antonio. More Texas coming soon!