Book Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Sometimes it helps to view our own historical era through the lens of another. Now it seems official policy to demonize the “other.” In North Texas after the Civil War, battles between white settlers and native Americans raged, with brutal atrocities committed on both sides.

Amid the violence, the novel’s lead character, Captain Kidd, seems an oasis of peace and information. He earns a small living by purchasing newspapers, then renting halls and reading to those who pay 10 cents admission to hear reports of other worlds, vast, incomprehensible, far beyond their narrow arenas. For the most part, his audiences are captivated by remote, mysterious tales. “Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

The action begins when he’s asked to return to her relatives a ten-year old girl, who’d been captured by Kiowa, lived with them for four years, then sold back to the US army agent. What ensues is a 400-mile journey through lawless lands, where the vulnerable old man and the heartbroken young girl—almost predictably—bond.

The travel is inevitably fraught with danger and catastrophe, peopled by villains and some surprisingly sympathetic characters. The prose is lyrical, sometimes humorous, and the captain’s gradual transformation unfolds inspiringly. He begins with dread of the contemptuous child, but gradually comes to understand what she has suffered, jolted from her first two homes, unsure of what awaits her next.

She knows nothing of English language or American customs, must be wrestled into uncomfortable clothes, and refuses shoes. The Texans who see her immediately condemn the “savage,” though they struggle to explain her blonde hair. But one perceptive Irish woman explains, “To go through our first creation is a turning of the soul we hope toward the light…To go through another tears all the making of the first creation and sometimes it falls to bits.” It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine children torn from the only homes they know and families fragmented by current deportation policy.

In an after-note, the author cites research showing that children captured by native tribes seldom wanted to return to white society, even when they had been with native American families for less than a year. They rarely readjusted. Because this story gives an abstract “issue” names and faces, we are drawn to sympathize.  And on a closing note of hope, the Captain who had once been skeptical spends his old age working on a dictionary of Kiowa.

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