Review: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Morrow, 2016. 213 pp. $23
The protagonist of this engaging, thoughtful novel, Jefferson Kyle Kidd, has an unusual profession. An itinerant version of a town crier, he travels the Texas frontier in 1870, reading carefully selected stories from out-of-town newspapers and charges his listeners a dime admission. Captain Kidd, as he’s known, dresses to project an image of an educated, experienced person of wide understanding, a role that comes easily, and chooses those stories that he thinks will fire the imaginations of his audience. He’s seldom wrong.
But it’s not just the captain’s profession or bearing that set him apart. A veteran of two wars, including that of 1812, and a southerner whose sons-in-law died for the Confederacy, Kidd has too much empathy to resort to race prejudice, reserving his hatred for viciousness, bullying, or predatory behavior. He likes his roving life, or so he believes, and there’s no tonic like his own company. And yet, he’s begun to realize that all isn’t what it could be.
He had become impatient of trouble and other people’s emotions. His life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas and he did not know what to do about it except seek out quiet and solitude. He was always impatient to get the readings over with now.
After this particular reading, he greets Britt Johnson, a black freedman whom he calls friend, who has a favor to ask. Britt has been given a fifty-dollar gold piece to bring a young girl to San Antonio, a four-hundred mile trip, returning her to her aunt and uncle following several years’ captivity with the Kiowas. Britt doesn’t want the job, partly because his two companions and he have urgent business elsewhere, but mostly because transporting a white girl would likely get him lynched. Kidd doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone, especially a ten-year-old who acts half-feral and will probably bolt at the first chance she gets. He’s raised two daughters, so he’s “done with all that,” he’s in his seventies, and he’s had enough trouble. But he can’t turn away from a friend, and the girl’s an orphan, after all, and no doubt saw the Kiowa kill her parents. She needs help.
Johanna, as Kidd calls her, is a handful and then some. She has no use for shoes, clothes as he understands them, table manners, kindness, or conversation–not that he speaks Kiowa or that she remembers English. And yes, Johanna does try to run away. But she also possesses wilderness skills that he appreciates (except when she misuses them in embarrassing ways) and courage under fire, which tells him she’s seen armed combat. As you’d expect, over time and circumstance, the two unwilling traveling companions learn each other, a little, and protect each other a lot.
They have several adventures that don’t turn out the way they anticipate; Jiles understands how to work the “no–and furthermore.” The reason they work, however, is that each connects to Kidd’s outlook, particularly his views of the cultural and racial divides that lead people to hate perfect strangers simply for what they (apparently) represent. It’s a clear-eyed lesson and as up-to-date as you could want, but it’s also a primer on how to write a novel. The exposition of the theme and the main character’s inner life are inseparable, and this is why he’s such a winning protagonist. For Kidd, who’s seen much of life and is looking forward to rest and peace and quiet during his final years–and who therefore has a certain perspective on younger people scurrying around–the question becomes, What does it all mean?
And his answer, which fits his profession, his difficult errand, and his refusal to take himself too seriously, is very simple. “Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.” He wonders whether each person has just one message to bring through life, which may or may not have anything to do directly with the bearer, but you have no choice. You have to carry it.
In reading News of the World, that idea gives me something to think about.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.