In this remarkably vivid and compelling adventure novel — longlisted for a National Book Award — Paulette Jiles takes us to post-Civil War Texas, a place of martial law, governmental corruption, racial bigotry, Indian raids and sexual trafficking — chaos, in a word. Think Huck’s experiences on the Mississippi — but uglier.

Yet beneath the cruelty that we seem to encounter everywhere, Jiles argues for the essential decency of (most) people. Her protagonist is Capt. Jefferson Kidd, a 70-year-old former Indian fighter and a veteran of three wars. These days he is something of a celebrity throughout East Texas, a gentle, principled man who travels from town to town, reading newspaper articles in rented halls. His avid listeners come from all over to drop dimes into a pail and hear him: “They slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left the cattle circled and bedding beside the flooding Red to come and hear the news of the distant world.” Kidd’s articles speak to their imaginations and enlarge their worlds, and so cultivate their humanity.

“News of the World” gives the Captain a secondary reason to travel. A 10-year-old German-American girl has been released to the U.S. Cavalry after having been taken captive by the Kiowa four years previously. Her parents and sister were slaughtered; she has totally assimilated to the life of the tribe. Her situation touches Kidd, who agrees to deliver her to her uncle and aunt, 400 miles away in San Antonio.

Such a plot runs the extreme risk of becoming a heartwarming formula novel: Two people from different backgrounds learn a lot about each other. While Jiles is unafraid of sentiment, her ability to keep the plot tense and the dialogue understated creates a delicious tale of constant surprises. Johanna (so Kidd names her) speaks and thinks only Kiowa, so Kidd must guide her into the white world that she will re-enter. Jiles also allows us access to Johanna’s consciousness — her apprehensions, her consoling spiritual songs, her nostalgia for the intimacy of tribal life, her growing trust in the Captain.

Jiles’ prose sparkles. It is at the same time lush and direct. As the Captain and Johanna camp out, “the Dipper turned on its great handle as if to pour night itself out onto the dreaming continent.” Just think of that!

Jiles is equally adept at plumbing human depths. Pondering the meaning of life, the Captain thinks, “Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says … but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

Mysterious and masterful, “News of the World” delivers the same sense of exotic wonder to us that the Captain’s articles bring to the frontier Texans.

 

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

News of the World
By: Paulette Jiles.
Publisher: William Morrow, 213 pages, $22.99.