Reviewed by Beth Kelley
Given Paulette Jiles’ own life in San Antonio, the sincerity with which she
describes yearning for a life of freedom on the Texas plains is not surprising. Jiles’
most recent novel, News of the World, takes place in reconstruction-era Texas, a
land still under military occupation where tensions run high and the most heavily
armed set the rules. Out of this lawlessness, Jiles crafts an artful twist on the old
western that is as moving as it is suspenseful.
The story opens with Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a retired captain who began his career
in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend at just 17 and has since seen three great wars
in his lifetime. Having always had an affinity for print, Captain Kidd spends his
time traveling around Texas and performing newspaper readings for audiences
at 10 cents a head. It’s a time of abundant news for Texas which is preparing
for readmittance to the Union and grappling with the recently instated 15th
amendment which, in the captain’s words, “Allows the vote to all men qualified
to vote without regard to race or color or previous condition of servitude…That
means colored gentlemen.” The captain takes a no-nonsense approach to his
readings. He does not tolerate outbursts or mutterings from the audience of locals,
many of whom disagree with the content or delivery of his news. After one of the
readings, however, the men waiting for him have a different goal than the usual
stragglers. This time, they present him with a challenge.
The challenge’s name is Johanna, a recently retrieved captive of the Kiowa tribe.
The men ask that Captain Kidd deliver the girl to her aunt and uncle in Castroville,
a town outside of San Antonio and at least a three-week journey away. She appears
meek at first, not unexpected given the trauma she experienced in her ten years
of life. But as the captain gains Johanna’s trust, her love of freedom and adventure
begin to emerge. As the duo travels across the war-ridden Texas plains to complete the captain’s mission, the roles of protector and protected turn out to be less clear-
cut than originally conceived. From reloading shot-gun cartridges with dimes formaximum impact, to dislodging a sheet of rock from the cliff above an attacker,
the skills and utter stoniness in the face of danger that Johanna picked up from the
Kiowa earn her the nickname “little warrior” from Captain Kidd. The developing
bond between the two protagonists ranges from a father-daughter relationship to
a mutual feeling of respect.
This unlikely journey is at once heart-warming and suspenseful. Though the
end-point is known from the start, the pair faces new dangers in each town. Still,
however, Jiles leaves room for humor in the irony of a young girl who is more
familiar with war tactics than the customs of “civilized society.” In one memorable
scene, the captain finds it necessary to scold his partner, impressing upon her
that scalping is “considered very impolite.” Another lesson of civility for Johanna
comes when she kills a townsman’s pet chickens for breakfast, not understanding
the concept of an animal functioning as something other than food.
At times, Jiles grows almost philosophical in nature. The captain reminisces
about his days as a military courier, and the more metaphorical meaning of the
joy he felt carrying those messages. In one train of exhausted thought, he thinks:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have
just one message, 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.”
In the theme of delivering messages throughout the novel, Jiles emphasizes that
the meaning is not in the message itself, but rather the journey that the courier
takes to deliver it. Just as the novel focuses in on Captain Kidd and Johanna’s
adventures rather than their destination, the process becomes more meaningful
than the result.
Jiles seems to understand the importance of the process over the result in the
broader sense of her writing, as well. . Everything from the Kiowa scalping and
victory chants to the lives of retrieved captives exhibits thorough research and
accuracy. The lives of captives, many of whom were children, were forever changed
once they returned to their families No matter how long they were away from
their homes, Jiles writes that all of the returned captives grew up “restless and
hungry for some spiritual solace, abandoned by two cultures, dark shooting stars
lost in the outer heavens.” These were children torn from two sets of families in a
matter of years, often given up on when they diverged from society’s set path. Jiles
describes the complex feelings of abandonment and confusion that Johanna feels
in a way that not only suggests thorough research but real empathy.
At its heart, News of the World is about freedom. As the duo’s final destination
approaches, the captain begins to mourn Johanna’s impending loss of freedom
and cries “for the trouble that lay ahead of her. For all the years of rooms and
walls and the peculiar rules against stealing chickens.” The captain tasted a life of independence and freedom during his days as a courier. His adventures with
Johanna allow him to reminisce on this time during their journey across Texas.
Seeing Johanna going from the wildness and strength she found with the Kiowa,
to being literally carted back to civilization hits home for the captain. Yearning
for freedom is a universal feeling both in terms of age, as between the captain
and Johanna, and time period. The setting of the novel, the end of the Civil War,
makes the theme especially poignant. The Captain, Johanna, and the formerly
enslaved South each found their freedom in radically different ways, but they are
all determined to hold it safe.
Paulette Jiles’ News of the World has something for everyone. Whether a roadside
fight that conveys the adventure of separationist Texas, a cross-generational bond
that proves that freedom doesn’t have to mean isolation, or the kind of humor that
only springs from unabashed children, every element of Jiles’ work is sure to draw
a reader into this heartwarming twist on the old western. Jiles draws attention to
the often-overlooked history of Native American captives in an emotional way.
Her account of Johanna’s experience gives history a fresh lens as well as an exciting
tale. If life is simply our journey to deliver messages, Jiles has delivered this one