Paulette Jiles continues to occupy a wonderful niche in the world of historical Western fiction. “News of the World,” a 2016 National Book Award finalist, offered readers an account of two immensely likable travelers making their way through the unfriendly barrenness of South Texas in the 1870s. In “Simon the Fiddler” we once again accompany a cast of intriguing characters on a suspenseful Texas-based quest just after the Civil War. The story of Simon and his friends is a crackling-good adventure tale.
The novel’s protagonist is a 23-year-old musician who has escaped conscription because he looks 15. Simon is small in stature and hotheaded, but his immense musical gifts seem to drive everything that happens in the novel. In a chaotic setting populated by angry, impoverished Southern men and avaricious Union occupying forces, music, Jiles tells us, has a redemptive power: “The slow airs could bring men and women to a standstill, their eyes brimming with tears for a remembered love or a certain long-lost valley at twilight or another country without war, taken by emotions of loss and exile for which they had no words.”
While Simon’s tunes evoke the past and apply salve to the present, they provide him with savings to work toward realizing a grand dream comprising a caring wife, a loving family (he has none of his own) and a spread on the plains: “His future was all there like a three-draw-spyglass shut up and compact and he would draw it out cylinder by cylinder.” To this end, he organizes an impromptu band — a Poe-quoting tin whistler, a Tejano guitarist, an Irish boy on bodhran — and they become an ersatz family, squatting in abandoned shacks, playing gigs and pinching pennies. Early in the novel, when a young Irish governess asks him to play “The Minstrel Boy,” Simon’s dream comes into focus. All of his musical sidemen (and all of our sympathies) are drawn into his lofty ambitions.
In “Simon the Fiddler,” Jiles has produced a classic Western adventure tale, with plenty of terse male dialogue and lush natural description. Simon’s desire for romantic fulfillment spurs the action. Simon and Doris (the governess) both romanticize their circumstances (as 19th-century Westerners often did) but Jiles’ detailed depictions of poverty and hazards provide a counterbalance. We see Simon and his friends living in rags, with nothing more to eat than ship’s biscuits and canned beef. Yellow fever is a horror in coastal cities like Galveston and Houston, as is the casual violence of drunken men. Moreover, none of Simon’s “family” has official discharge papers and all are subject to arrest. Doris’ situation, as we learn, is even worse.
In her acknowledgments, Jiles thanks her musical group, and I imagine that her ensemble plays many of the airs and jigs that Simon does. In “a world burnt down,” Jiles illustrates the cosmic dimension of music, its ability to create unity among disparate people “who listened to the phrases of melody that somehow fitted together as constellations fit together far away in the deeps of space, shining over the Gulf.”
Tom Zelman is professor emeritus of English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Simon the Fiddler
By: Paulette Jiles.
Publisher: William Morrow, 352 pages, $27.99.