The Colour of Lightning opens with Britt Johnson, a freed slave (and an actual historical figure), travelling from Kentucky to north Texas with his family in the waning days of the American Civil War. There they hope to find a quiet place to settle, away from the Union and Confederate armies. This hope proves chimerical, and the family finds itself devastated by another, infinitely more complicated war: one that’s raging between the U.S. government, the native Kiowa and Comanche tribes, and the people of Texas.
Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust award winner Paulette Jiles expertly recreates the milieu of north Texas in the late 1860s by filtering it through the eyes of its inhabitants. Elizabeth Fitzgerald is large, wealthy, twice-widowed, and taken captive by the Comanche. Samuel Hammond, a Quaker from Philadelphia, is sent down to sort out the corrupt Indian Affairs office. Esa Havey, Eaten Alive, and a chorus of men and women represent the native people whose way of life has been changed forever by the arrival of the pioneers and their war.
Jiles isn’t messing around. Her reverence for the land and its people seeps into every page, imbuing them with the stuff of mythology. At its best moments, the novel becomes a sensory experience and it feels as though Jiles herself has spent time mapping these plains, rivers, and forests. Each action, every conversation is nestled within paragraphs of exacting landscape description. Every footstep of Britt’s journey to rescue his wife and children from the Kiowa who have taken them is retraced: “He crossed the Red River into Indian Territory late the following morning. He rode to the edge of the floodplain. Below him were the bottoms. The tall trees were all on the north side. On the south bank where he sat and watched, the post oak was still and short. Their leaves whispered in wet sibilants.”
While the near constant exposition is at times cumbersome, it provides a steady counterpoint to Jiles’s gruesomely detailed descriptions of raids, rapes, and disembowelments – horrific, albeit necessary, inclusions. Not surprisingly, they yield some of the book’s most resonant moments, as when Jiles notes the bobby pins and comb that fall out of Susan Durgan’s “tangled brown hair” after she is scalped.
Despite the large cast and the detailed description, the narrative is putatively Britt’s. In her author’s note, Jiles (who currently lives near San Antonio) says she returned again and again to the historical Britt Johnson while researching north Texas history, and this inspired her to chronicle the final years of his life. The Colour of Lightning, she writes, “is in essence a true story.”
For all of its fidelity to historical accuracy, however, it is still a novel and, Britt is its dominant figure – or at least, he should be. In actuality, he more closely resembles a cipher than a fully fleshed human being.
In her afterword, Jiles points out that very few details of Britt’s life have been recorded, and the accounts that do exist are often contradictory. Despite the imaginative space this dearth of historical evidence should offer, Jiles fails to bring him to life. This is a man whose wife has been so traumatized that for years she can barely speak, let alone have a relationship with her husband. He earns a living by freighting goods across hostile territory, risking his life every day. Why? Jiles offers no explanation, other than that he’s honourable, straightforward, and loves his woman. As a result, the few moments when Britt does assert himself come across as contrived attempts at profundity. For example, when he meets Samuel Hammond, the Indian Affairs agent, the following exchange ensues:
“I am a free man,” said Britt. “Have been for years.”
Hammond brightened. “Excellent! A free negro! In Texas!”
Britt’s face was still. He said, “Are you?”
Hammond was silent a moment. “Am I what?”
Hammond was silent for a moment. Then he gave Britt a quick nod. “An excellent question. One worthy of pondering.”
This dialogue serves to make a socio-political point, but as an illustration of Britt’s character, it’s rather thin.
Britt’s presence in the novel is further diminished by several storylines vying for the reader’s attention, most obviously Samuel Hammond’s. Jiles gives Hammond’s character (that of a staunch Christian proponent of non-violence) and his predicament (he has been sent in to govern a lawless, warring people) almost the same attention as Britt’s. Soon after the novel opens, Jiles spends 20 pages describing Hammond’s background in Philadelphia. From there, entire chapters are devoted to life in the Indian Agency and Hammond’s religious dilemma. Meanwhile, other secondary characters come and go without explanation. One example is James Deaver, an adventurer-illustrator with the New York Herald. Deaver meets Hammond on the train to Texas and subsequently reappears a few times solely to warn Hammond of what readers already know – that he’s in over his head.
Taken as a whole, The Colour of Lightning more closely resembles a survey of north Texas’s socio-political climate in the mid- to late-1800s than a story of a heroic everyman. After slowly progressing through the last third of the novel, the bullet-riddled conclusion fails to stir the intended emotion. Instead of feeling that they’ve undergone a powerful fictional experience, readers may close the book with only the distinct impression that they have learned something.