The News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 3.5

A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before. She is not a willing passenger: she has no memory of her original parents and has been thoroughly “Indianized”. She speaks only Kiowa and can’t bear crowds, western clothing, or being indoors.

The time is 1870 — shortly after the end of the Civil War. Texas appears almost lawless with tensions running high between those supporting different candidates and all the men with any law enforcement experience sent away. Kidd reads the news in order to bring the exotic into people’s lives — he avoids controversial topics and prefers to “escort” his audience’s mind “into the lands of the imagination — far places, crisp ice mountains, falling chimney pots, tropical volcanoes.” The news items he reads, and many of the characters he runs into, are historic: Britt Johnson, the Horrell brothers, the Cinncinnati red stockings (the first professional baseball team), Ada Kepley (the first female law graduate), a new bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn …

It’s a long distance from where he picks up the girl to where she is to be delivered. On the way are multiple opportunities to describe landscape, daily details (broom making machine, meat grinders, US soldiers guarding any assembly), thieves and outlaws, and people trying to muster the courage to be good in a world gone haywire. While the girl grows to trust the Captain, the Captain becomes less happy about what she will face upon delivery. Everything we know about the girl we know from Captain Kidd’s perspective. He is the only person in the story who appears to be able to empathize with her and he does it beautifully. With his age and experience, he is better able to express her experience than she is herself.

A short, fast, read that feels more like catchy journalism than a typical novel (the detail gives it a sense of veracity not often found in historical fiction). Good writing! A few sample lines:

“Captain Kidd could not make himself back down, it was not a thing for which he had any aptitude, nor had he ever, and it was far too late in life to change.”

“Captain Kidd looked up and enviously considered the chickens — so daft, so stupid, so uninformed.”

”He could almost hear the jointed sound as one vertebrae settled on another.”

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