Friday, July 7, 2017

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling through the post-Civil War American south, earning money by reading aloud from world newspapers throughout the small towns in his path. Having lost his printing press during the war, as well as his wife and land, he earns his living doing this, despite being elderly and in need of the stability of his grown children and a place to call home. One day, while traveling through Kansas, he encounters a group of men who enlist him to return a young girl, Johanna, back to her relatives in Texas. She was kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe of Native Americans after the murder of her parents and has been missing for four years. Reluctantly, and in need of money, Kidd agrees to see her home.

During their journey he quickly realizes that Johanna has not only forgotten completely about her old life, but she has completely absorbed and become a member of the Kiowa tribe, observing their rituals, adopting their language and mannerisms and Kidd, understanding how difficult it will be for her to return to a family she doesn't remember or really know, spends their journey trying to jolt her memory and help ease her way back into the world of her German immigrant relatives. Along the way, he and Johanna encounter the citizens of small, isolated towns, both friendly and dangerous and bond as they traverse the wilds of Texas and form an unlikely friendship.

I have read exactly one other western in my life, exactly none of which I remember. It is not really a genre I have spent a lot of time with for various reasons (most of which boil down to preference.) Jiles has written a definite western, however, her characters are fascinating and the story about Johanna and her kidnapping and subsequent inability to reintegrate back into her former life is engaging and heartbreaking enough to pique the interest of readers who have no interest in westerns. Johanna's story is, as we are told throughout the book by side characters and in the author's epilogue, one that happened several times during this period in the American frontier. Yet there is very little research about the psychology of these kidnapped children. Perhaps that is what is so engaging about Johanna and her relationship with Captain Kidd; it is a unique and little known experience but has very human and relatable results. Jiles writes evocatively and her descriptions of the natural scenes is rich with imagery and effective language. But I think the strength of the book is really with Captain Kidd's character. I was riveted by his inner life and the brief glimpses we get of his past. Is it too simplistic to say that I just really liked him?

It is hard to know who exactly I'd recommend this to, aside from fans of westerns. It is an undeniably good book; the characters alone are definitely worth your time. If you are into historical novels, frontier novels, or have an interest in characters with little explored psychological conditions, this will also appeal to you. It is a fairly quick read with beautiful language and a heart breaker (in a good way) of an ending.

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