Friday, February 16, 2018
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Seventy-one year old Captain Jefferson Kidd is travelling through Texas, carrying "the news of the world" to small towns where folks will pay a dime to hear him read the papers. It's just after the Civil War and, in many ways, Texas is the wild west. Kidd had hoped that sharing stories from all over the world would help bring unity to divided people: If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five.
In one city where he stops, his offered $50 to deliver an orphan to her people who are 400 miles away. The girl had been kidnapped four years earlier by a band of Kiowa Indians and had recently been rescued by the U.S. Army. Kidd names the ten-year old Johanna and promises to take her safely home. As they travel together, warding off bandits and busybodies, they learn to communicate and to build a friendship that brings healing to both of them.
Kidd had become indifferent to humanity. Now it was different. He was drawn back into the stream of being because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered. The strange depression and spiritual chill he had felt were gone. . . . Joy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again and he smiled as he read; . . . . [he] recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls.
The exquisite writing was balm to my soul. Jiles helped me to see and hear the settings and the people when she wrote that someone was as "freckled as a guinea hen" or that "His pen nib scratched across the newsprint with a noise like avaricious mice." Some turns of phrase were so apt and lovely that I laughed out loud with sheer joy.
She also does a wonderful job establishing the historical context, adding details about post Civil War conflicts, the economy, the laws (or lack of them), Kiowa Indian customs, and more. But it was never an overwhelming amount of details. The clash between the Kiowa and the white man's cultures is handled with skill and without pat answers.
The denouement in the final chapter was spot on. The reader learns that it isn't the big "world" news that changes people, but the daily sacrificial offering of one's life to another.
In spite of the occasional profanity (none of it felt gratuitous), this is a beautiful story of grace in the midst of brokenness. The narrator at Audible, Grover Gardner, had the perfect gravelly voice for this book. I look forward to revisiting this novel in the future.