Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Review: "News of the World" by Paulette Jiles

Yeah, I'm late to the party on this one.

I'm man enough to admit I didn't read this before now because I was misinformed. For some reason I mistakenly believed this book was another story which veered closely to True Grit—you know, cantankerous old man becomes the protector of a young-but-tough girl, and hijinks and friendships ensue. Having read the book, and seen both versions of the film, and also read a pretender or two, I really wasn't enamored of reading another similar story.

While there are perhaps a few similar elements, Paulette Jiles' News of the World is a story all its own, full of heart and beauty and simplicity and tenderness, and even a little poetry. It totally took me by surprise and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1870. The U.S. is starting to recover from the damages wrought by the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of two wars (the first when he was just a teenager), is now an elderly widower, a former printer who now spends his days traveling throughout Texas, reading newspapers from all over the world to paying crowds anxious and interested to hear about what is happening both in places they know and places they might only have imagined. He is careful, however, to steer away from any news of Reconstruction and the Confederacy, knowing how it will inflame tempers.

While in one town, he is offered a job—and a $50 gold piece—to bring a young girl who had been taken from her family four years before by a band of Kiowa raiders. Her family was killed, but she survived, and was taken in to the Kiowa family, raised as one of them. But such things cannot be, and when she is recaptured, it is decreed that she should be returned to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle near San Antonio.

For 10-year-old Johanna, the only family she really knows are the Kiowa Indians who raised her, and she cannot understand why she has been taken away from them. She doesn't appear to know English, refuses to wear shoes or act in a "civilized" manner, will not eat with a fork and knife, and tries to find any opportunity to cross the river and hopefully return home.

But as Captain Kidd and Johanna travel through Texas, finding themselves in danger more often than they care to count, and trying to find common ground, the two begin building a relationship of sorts, with Kidd trying to find empathy for this young girl whose life has already been turned upside down twice, and by dint of his job, he will be party to this happening a third time.

"More than ever knowing in his fragile bones that it was the duty of men who aspired to the condition of humanity to protect children and kill for them if necessary."

As they draw closer and closer to San Antonio, and an uncertain fate for Johanna, Kidd is torn—he knows at his age, a widower living alone has no place raising a child, especially one so traumatized by life as Johanna has been. But can he really let her go, after he has become the only person she trusts and can communicate with? And if he doesn't deliver her to her aunt and uncle, does that make his as much a kidnapper as the Kiowa?

I've really simplified the plot of this book, but it is such a lovely story. Have we seen elements of this type of story before? Certainly. But even if you have suspicions of how the plot will unfold, and those suspicions may prove correct, Jiles' tells such a beautiful story, and has created two immensely memorable characters, characters which warm the heart and stay in the mind.

What struck me about this book is that Jiles was able to create a little bit of tension at every turn, which made the story move even a little faster, and she imbued her descriptions of their surroundings throughout their journey with such evocative imagery, it was lyrical, even poetic. I was fascinated by Kidd's reading the news to people—it's the first time I've ever heard of that happening.

I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, but this book really worked for me. If you're not one of the people who already has taken this book to your heart, add it to your list, because these characters will make you smile and, perhaps even cry a little.

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