With the omnipresence of 24-hour TV news channels, online news aggregators, and Twitter, it is difficult to imagine a time when global news wasn’t available instantaneously; when, if you wanted any sense of world events, you might have had to congregate in a public forum and pay to listen to someone read the newspaper. In Paulette Jiles’s latest novel, set in 1870 Texas in the aftermath of the American Civil War, that someone is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.
Inspired by a historical reader of the news, Captain Kidd (who made his first appearance in Jiles’s 2009 novel The Color of Lightning) is a 71-year-old veteran of three wars. Now widowed, he makes his life and living on the road, travelling around small towns in northern Texas, reading the news for those who find his performances entertaining, or simply can’t read. Townsfolk drop dimes into an old paint can to pay for admittance, and Captain Kidd – who is possessed of “the appearance of wisdom and age and authority” – regales them with carefully chosen articles from The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Daily Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the London Times, and other publications.
Texas in the Reconstruction period was a place of extreme violence, social upheaval, lawlessness, and political uncertainty; Jiles convincingly conveys an atmosphere of suspicion and unease in Captain Kidd’s interactions with the inhabitants of the various towns where he alights. Tensions run high and arguments break out easily between men armed with revolvers and rifles. Recognizing that his listeners “have lost the ability to discuss any political event in Texas in a reasonable manner,” Captain Kidd deliberately avoids certain contentious topics in his readings, preferring instead to be the herald of news from distant places, telling his listeners about “undiscovered lands in the kingdoms of ice, fabulous beasts, perils overcome, snow people in furry suits.” Ideally positioned, we learn, for his occupation, having been a runner in the army’s message corps and later a printer, the captain seeks both to soothe his audience and instill in them an awareness of the world beyond their small towns. Akin to a travelling preacher, he seems almost compelled to spread the good word.
Into the captain’s solitary, roaming existence comes a most unusual complication. In Wichita Falls, he becomes embroiled with Johanna, a 10-year-old white girl of German heritage, who has been captive of the Kiowa since she was six. Captured after the murder of her parents, the girl is now being returned to her aunt and uncle. At first, she is in the keeping of Captain Kidd’s old acquaintance, Britt Johnson, the central historical figure from The Color of Lightning. Johnson and his companions, Paint Crawford and Dennis Cureton, are former slaves, now freed men, and are hesitant to transport Johanna south to her San Antonio home. It’s a very long trip and Johnson understands that “the general population had not settled the matter of free black people in their minds yet.” The captain, loving father of two grown daughters, agrees to deliver Johanna, though he is warned that she can be a handful, and is potentially even dangerous.
After four years living with the Kiowa, Johanna has completely forgotten her native language and her family of origin, and wants nothing more than to return to her adoptive native parents. According to Jiles’s author’s note, these children, reunited with their families, were often unable to reacclimate to their non-native lives. This psychological dynamic forms a fascinating and crucial focus in News of the World, but is not explored as searchingly as it might have been were we granted deeper access to Johanna’s interior world. Apart from one minor attempt to escape, Johanna, a wily and smart little girl, offers surprisingly little resistance to being returned to San Antonio and she appears to trust Captain Kidd, though the reasons for this aren’t obvious.
News of the World includes frequently poetic descriptions of the Texas landscape in all its unpredictable beauty. Beyond this, and notwithstanding the nature of the narration, Jiles’s best work in this skilfully constructed novel is the touching, though at times dubious, relationship that develops between the stalwart Captain Kidd and his young, wild charge. An unlikely duo, they assist each other through a number of predicaments, managing to communicate despite different languages and attitudes toward appropriate behaviour.
The understated but real affection between the elderly captain and the young girl results in a life-changing decision at the end of the story, one that produces the best of all possible outcomes. The arc of their relationship is only disappointing from the perspective of its limited narrative viewpoint. Had more of the story been told from Johanna’s perspective, not just that of the captain, this accomplished work of research and storytelling might have revealed itself even more movingly and meaningfully.