A beguiling tale of two unlikely companions on the road

NEWS OF THE WORLD, by Paulette Jiles

Wichita Falls, Texas, 1870: A time when the only way many people could learn the news of the world was to have it read to them. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, seventy years of age, a widower and veteran of three wars, makes his living traveling between small towns, reading from Harper’s Weekly, the London Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer… reasoning that “If people had news of the world perhaps they would not take up arms.”

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Texas is a nearly lawless place and raids are common. In these raids, children, like Joanna Leonberger, are often kidnapped. The Kiowa captured Johanna four years earlier and adopted her, but have now traded her back to the white people for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” Harboring a white captive brings trouble with the cavalry. 

Captain Kidd reluctantly agrees, as a favor to a friend, to return the now ten-year old Johanna to her German relatives who live outside San Antonio, almost the other end of the state from Wichita Falls. Johanna, a small, sad and angry warrior, remembers nothing of her German family and knows nothing of the white-man’s ways. “God only knows what she would do if presented with dinner on a plate,” Kidd muses. My name is Cicada, she is desperate to tell this white man to whom she has been entrusted. My father’s name is Turning Water. My mother’s name is Three Spotted. I want to go home. But Johanna speaks only Kiowa and she cannot go home. And so the unlikely pair set off on their long and perilous journey.

The Captain continues to earn money along the way by giving readings.  His goal is to impart “…a few paragraphs of hard news and then… of dreamlike places far removed.” We readers get hear news of the world along with the people of Durand, Carlyle Springs, and Lampasas: Texas is admitted as a state to the union. The Democrats adopt the donkey as their symbol. The Red Stockings are formed as the first professional baseball team. People known as Esquimaux wear fur coats made from seals. Victoria Falls has been discovered.

Often in historical fiction, an author’s research shows. Not so with Paulette Jiles. She brilliantly and seamlessly weaves into the narrative details about smooth bored versus rifled guns, ammunition, women’s and men’s clothing, social mores, and the politics of the time. “No one who voted for Davis is getting into Erath County,” utters one resident.

Jiles’s rendering of the plucky “Cho-hanna’s” attempts to conquer the white man’s language and ways is humorous, credible, and deeply endearing. “Kep-dun,” as Cho-hanna calls the Captain (also Kontah, grandfather in Kiowa) is a welcome hero, a man of integrity and strong moral fiber: the kind of character we are happy to spend time with on the road. “Loss of reputation and regard...” he notes after one especially egregious breach of etiquette by Cho-hanna, “is worse that being penniless and more cutting than the blades of the enemy.” He grows ever fonder of his young charge and more fearful for her future.

They encounter both friends and foes along the way. Cho-hanna has the body and mind of a child but the heart of a Kiowa. In a dramatic shoot-out, during which she and Kep-dun are badly outmatched, she braids her hair like a warrior and steps in to save the day. They meet the kind and generous Doris Dillon, a woman familiar with the plight of captured and adopted children. Dillon understands that they become misfits who will never fully fit back into the non-native culture and who cannot return to their adoptive Indian families, what all captives most want.  (In her author’s note, Jiles suggests that readers who are interested in the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes read The Captured by Scott Zesch.)

The Captain and Johanna grow closer with each passing mile. And with each passing page readers will grow more anxious about how, and whether, Jiles will bring this story to a satisfactory close. If Johanna is safely delivered to her relatives–a hardworking and generous couple who hate the Kiowa–what will become of her? And what will become of the Captain without his small charge? But he is a man of integrity. He has accepted money and given his word that he will deliver the girl. And so deliver her he must.

Jiles, a former poet, delivers delightful prose that is lyrical, yet always appropriate to time and character. After reading her description of a Portugese man o’ war as a “celluloid cabbage,” I shall never think of one any other way. A National Book Award finalist, News of the World is a deeply moving story told with great skill, pathos, and humor.

News of the World is available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.

Katharine Britton is the author of three novels, Her Sister's Shadow, Little Island, and Vanishing Time.


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