Front cover of News of the World - Four very different booksNEWS OF THE WORLD

Paulette Jiles

[William Morrow Paperbacks, 240 pages]

News of the World, the book I discovered via an Audible.com prompt immediately after completing The True American, previously reviewed here, is as different from that one as a book can be.

It’s a short historical novel, a period piece about Texas in 1870 during the aftermath of the Civil War, and before “Indian Territory” has been rendered completely safe for whites. At that time, the Kiowa and Comanche were liable to raid any party travelling across the state.

The protagonist of the book is a 70-year-old man named Captain Kidd. After several years in military service as a young man, Kidd became a printer. When the economics of the Civil War led to the closing of his shop, he morphed into a sort of performer. At the time in which the novel is set, he travels across Texas giving little “Chautauqua” events, during which he reads excerpts from American and European newspapers to audiences in small theatres and meeting rooms.

The captain is a good man who has seen a lot. His depth of character is one source of the book’s charm. Another is a 10-year-old girl he calls “Johanna,” who was kidnapped when she was four by the Kiowa, and is being returned to a surviving family member, given that her parents were killed in the raid that led to her abduction.

Johanna has lived with the Kiowa for four years and remembers nothing at all about her early life. She’s terrified of the white man, and identifies totally as an Indian. An acquaintance of Captain Kidd, who’s been transporting the girl to the home of an aunt and uncle, but has other commitments he needs to attend to, asks the Captain to take her the rest of the way. The journey entails the duo’s travelling several hundred miles, from Wichita Falls (near the Texas panhandle) to a town south of San Antonio, in a small horse-drawn wagon.

The narrative of the dangerous trip and the events that occur after the girl is delivered act as a window into an America that doesn’t often get such skilful literary treatment. In the end, that warms a reader’s heart, too.

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