Saturday, June 6, 2020

News of the World: a very short review

Almost as soon as I turned the last page of Paulette Jiles's marvelous News of the World, I was making plans to pick another of her books to read next.

Somehow I had not heard of Jiles before, although she's been writing for more than a decade with many awards and accolades. She lives in San Antonio and (I think) sets most of her books in Texas.

The timeframes and settings vary, I believe; News of the World is set in 1870, which was a time of great change in America as a whole, but certainly in Texas. Our hero is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71 year old veteran (of the war of 1812!) whose profession is to bring Texas the news of the world.

That is, Kidd "reads the news". In a time in which a combination of turmoil, poverty, low literacy rates and other factors meant that most people had neither the access to nor the capability of getting updates on current affairs, except what they might pick up incidentally via a trip to the grocer or the tavern or the blacksmith, Kidd provides a critical service.

So when Kidd rides into town, puts up his placards advertising the evening reading, and rents the local meeting hall or tavern for the night, townsfolk stream in and drop a dime into the can to hear Kidd read late into the night selections from the Boston Morning Journal, the New-York Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the London Times. These readings might be weeks or months old by that point, but they are still fresh news from the world at large in frontier towns such as Fort Worth, Meridian, or Bowie.

The main thrust of the book, though, is an unlikely, yet certainly plausible and well-supported by evidence, adventure story involving Kidd and a 10-year-old girl named Johanna Leonberger, who was taken captive by a Kiowa tribe five years earlier following a battle near San Antonio, and has grown up since then in Kiowa territory (the broader Great Plains region). Johanna, it turns out, has been seized back from the Kiowa by some out-of-work Civil War veterans who were hoping to collect the reward, but for complex reasons too good to spoil, it falls to the Captain to take her 400 miles from the Red River town of Spanish Fort back to San Antonio, all the while being chased by a never-ending collection of neer-do-wells intent on foiling his simple plan.

There's action galore and lovely evocative tellings of frontier life in Texas in the 1870's, but some of the most fascinating parts of the book come in those quiet times in between:

He sat on his carpetbag and leaned against a wheel. His mind kept going back to the fight and to put it aside he watched Pasha graze and drank black coffee and smoked his pipe. Johanna played in the stream like a six-year-old. She turned over rocks and sang and splashed. To comfort himself and slow down his mind he thought of his time as a courier, a runner, and Maria Luisa and his daughters. 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.

There are certainly plenty of mysteries in life, but of this I am sure: you could spend many a lovely hour with Paulette Jiles's News of the World. I can't wait to read more of her work.

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