Joy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again, and he smiled as he read the amusing things, the Hindi women who would not say their husbands’ names, odd telegraph messages caught by a reporter, and recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls. He saw her bright, fierce little face break into laughter when the crowd laughed. It was good. Laughter is good for the soul and all your interior works.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World
News of the World, recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, is a gem of a novel. Only 224 pages long, it proves that length and a complex plot are not requirements for memorable and insightful historical fiction. It’s a simple story, on the surface. Shortly after the Civil War, retired Army Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is offered a fifty-dollar gold piece to return ten-year-old Johanna, a redeemed captive of the Kiowa tribe, to her German relatives in San Antonio, Texas — a journey of 400 miles through dangerous and lawless territory. The little girl, who doesn’t know English and longs to return to her Indian “family”, becomes Captain Kidd’s reluctant companion. At first, she is “not willing to concede they might be on the same side against anyone or anything.”
Captain Kidd, a seventy-year-old widower, earns his living traveling throughout northern Texas, giving live readings from faraway newspapers. He once ran a successful printing business, but “the war had taken his press and everything else, the economy of the Confederacy had fallen apart even before the surrender”, so Captain Kidd reads aloud from the London Times, the New York Evening Post, the Boston Morning Journal, the Milwaukee Daily News (which he calls the “Cheese and Norwegian Tatler”) in rented halls and churches, collecting dimes in a paint can.
The novel opens at a reading in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town near the border of what was then called Indian Territory. The Captain feels that “his life had lately seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas . . .”. Although he is initially reluctant to become responsible for Johanna, a sense of purpose enters his life once he agrees. Captain Kidd — who is the father of two grown daughters — recognizes that Johanna’s hostility masks her terror, and he becomes fiercely protective of her. The two learn to communicate, and eventually to love one another. Jiles tells the story of their deepening relationship in a way that seems completely natural and believable, and with plenty of dry humor.
Johanna, as the Captain’s Irish friend Doris Dillon comments, “is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.” In the author’s note, Paulette Jiles mentions some of the research she did on the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier. She says that, like Johanna, “they apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families . . .”.
Captain Kidd, who is based on a real person, Caesar Adolphus Kydd, instinctively understands Johanna’s predicament. After she throws a fork in frustration,
He was suddenly almost overwhelmed with pity for her. Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing . .. and now she could not even eat her food without having to use outlandish instruments.
The Captain is not just a likable character; he is an admirable character, and what a joy it is to read a book whose protagonist is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. No goody two-shoes, he can be short-tempered and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so he is certainly not perfect. Captain Kidd makes an appearance in one of Jiles’s earlier books, The Color of Lightning, which is reason enough for me to read it.
If you had asked me last month what my favorite “western” novel was, I would have said Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Now, I think I would say it’s News of the World. Dazzling writing, characters I fell in love with, a satisfying story — and less than one-third the length of Lonesome Dove! (By the way, Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. It was not a finalist for the National Book Award, but back then there were only three finalists selected.) Max, my colleague at Lake Forest Book Store, says if you liked One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus (another top-notch historical novel set in the West in the 1870s), you’ll love News of the World.
I haven’t read all the nominees for the National Book Award, so I can’t weigh in on which one I’d vote for, but I’ll be thrilled if News of the World wins. Which it probably won’t, based on what I’ve been reading — it looks like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the favorite. I’m trying to read as many of the finalists as possible before the winners are announced next month. Next up: Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson.
Readers, who do you think will win this year’s National Book Award for fiction?