I came back from two conferences with bags full of books, but this novel was a gift from a friend, and so I moved it to the top of the pile. I’m glad I did. In a year of historic political division and growing national misogyny, on November 16th the National Book Award failed to honor a single nominated woman, but instead focused on divisions along racial lines. So, let me talk about this beguiling and poetic novel written by a woman that deals with race and the position of women in a historical moment defined by rampant violence, tyranny, martial law, huge political and economic differences, government corruption, and the vulnerability of the disenfranchised.
Paulette Jiles lives in Austin, Texas. She is an author who writes lyrically of real events and people fictionalized in a vivid and epic narrative that never loses its sense of the personal and the mundane events of this journey story. The book was one of the worthy nominees for the National Book Award for best novel.
The tale begins in the winter of 1870 in north Texas. The state is still under martial law, the US troops of occupation guard public meetings of any kind. Despite raids from the Indian Territories across the Red River, roving bandits, and sex traffickers, private citizens are prohibited from carrying handguns. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71 year-old veteran of two wars and a survivor of a third, the Civil War, is a former printer plying his trade as a itinerant purveyor of news. He travels from town to town through Reconstruction Texas setting up public events where he reads from Eastern and international newspapers of exotic and romantic places and events, he hopes to broaden his audience’s understanding of the world. He carefully avoids articles about the corrupt and warring political factions in power in Texas.
Into his precarious vagabond life comes a 10-year old girl recently recovered from the Kiowa. Taken when she was six during a raid that killed the rest of her family, her aunt and uncle have offered a $50 gold piece for her return. The negro teamsters transporting her know and trust Kidd and see him as a reliable escort, whereas their conveying a young white girl offers all kinds of complications. Kidd’s sense of honor and the vulnerability of this young wild child persuade him more than the money. From the beginning, the trip is a struggle, fraught with peril and unsavory characters. But the old man’s kindness, the girl’s courage, their shared danger, and their growing interdependency forge a bond between the two.
When at last Kidd delivers her to her remaining family, she has begun to relearn her original language, accepted the necessity of wearing the constrictive white clothing, and begun to feel safe in his company. But the dour German couple he meets are looking for someone to share the labor of their farm, without any consideration for the kindness required to fully reclaim a young girl who will forever consider herself a Kiowa, ripped from her family not once but twice. The ultimate choice of what is right and wrong and what constitutes honor, responsibility, and family is at the heart of this story, brilliantly and mesmerizingly told through the day to day decisions of life and death.
A recurrent theme of the book is evident in the title, News of the World. Kidd began adulthood as a 16-year old courier in the War of 1812. He has continued to bring messages and news of things beyond and outside as a printer and reader. In the epilogue of the story we learn “the Captain asked to be buried with his runner’s badge. He kept it since 1814. He said he had a message to deliver, contents unknown.” How nice it would be to have a Captain Kidd to see us through this current moment in history.