‘Perhaps they both had narrowly escaped death–death by arrow, death by beauty, death by night.’ – News of the World by Paulette Jiles
When I read a historical novel I want to find myself immersed in another world: a past world that has come alive. Paulette Jiles has worked this magic in News of the World. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran in his early seventies, who accepts a commission to convey Johanna Leonberger, age ten, to her relations in San Antonio. Johanna has spent the past four years living with Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her after killing her parents. Since the Captain and Johanna are starting out in the very northernmost part of the state, they have a long journey ahead of them. For a conveyance that will serve, Kidd has purchased a green ‘excursion wagon;’ on its side is painted in gold letters Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas. His two horses, Pasha and Fancy, will also make up the party.
Along the way, Kidd and Johanna have plenty to contend with. Lawless bands of heavily armed men are freely roaming the countryside. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. There is the constant danger of theft of their meager stores. Kidd ekes these out by hiring venues along the way and therein presenting readings from various newspapers to the state’s news-starved (and sometimes illiterate) denizens.
Meanwhile Johanna, a cheerfully feral child, has become Kiowa in spirit and outlook. It’s some time before the Captain is able to inculcate into her some basic notions of “civilized” behavior. She may be a wild child but she’s an extremely resourceful one. At one point, she gets the herself and the captain out of a tight spot by showing him how to use coins as projectiles in their severely depleted store of ammunition. Amazing!
Jiles’s wonderful writing is enlivened by a sly wit and a telling instinct for le mot juste:
There is a repeat mechanism in the human mind that operates independent of will.
I knew I’d want to remember that. And here’s a wonderful bit of description:
The man was too big to be a human being sand too small to be a locomotive. He had been shot of the tower of the Bardsley mansion and when he fell three stories and struck the ground he probably made a hole big enough to bury a hog in.
Jiles employs the same low key narrative tone in describing a harrowing river crossing:
They slowed as the current stopped them and then it took hold of the little mare and their wagon as well. Crows shot up out of the far bank screaming. Foam churned around them, drift and duff ran on top of the fast water in snaking lines. Briefly the wagon floated. The roan mare snorted, went under, came up and beat at the floodwaters with her hooves. Then she struck hard bottom and they pulled up on the far bank with water draining in streams.
Unavoidably they encounter sad evidence of the devastation wrought by war:
They came to a destroyed cabin and he pulled up and then went inside. Broken cups and pieces of dress material torn on a nail. A doll’s body without a head. He dug a 50-caliber bullet out of the wall with his knife and then carefully placed it on the windowsill as if for a memento. Here were memories, loves, deep heartstring notes like the place where he had been raised in Georgia. Here had been people whose dearest memories were the sound of a dipper dropped in the water bucket after taking a drink and the clink of it as it hit bottom. The quiet of evening.
It goes on.
The plot is not the main point of interest in this novel. It is not especially original. There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which the Captain and Johanna gradually form a bond. But the story is told in so compelling a way that the fate of these characters becomes increasingly crucial. I was very worried about what would happen at the end. I cared tremendously.
News of the World carried me back to one of the greatest reading experiences of my life: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Jiles’s canvas is smaller here, but I got the same feeling of being transported to a time and place that, when artfully limned, seems to all but overwhelm the senses: namely, the state of Texas in former times.
In her New York Times review of News of the World, Suzanne Berne says the following:
In a world where live oak leaves fall “like pennies” and teams of oxen move in “a ponderous waltz,” everything is news. And at scarcely 200 pages, this exhilarating novel, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, travels through its marvelous terrain so quickly that one is shocked, almost stricken, to reach the end. So do what I did: Read it again.
I may need to do the same.
A wonderful, wonderful book.