Paulette Jiles, News of the World: A Novel (New York: William Morrow, 2016), 209pp.
We call it the Wild West, and for good reason. Paulette Jiles's historical novel is set in 1870, in the devastating aftermath of the War Between the States. Texas is a place of anarchy, and under military rule. The protagonist of her story, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, is an old widower when we meet him. He had experienced three wars — the War of 1812 when he was sixteen years old, then the War with Mexico, and the Civil War just ended.
He's a wizened and tender man, given to philosophic reflection at the age of seventy-two. In our own day, when news ricochets around the world in seconds, he has a most interesting vocation as a news reader. Kidd drifts from town to town in North Texas, where at night he changes into his "reading clothes," and gives public readings from newspapers for a dime per person. "He loved information," writes Jiles, and so did his audiences.
This is a failed vocation for Kidd: "If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five." At each stop along the way, he would "give them a few paragraphs of hard news and then read of dreamlike places far removed. This was the arrangement of all his readings. It worked."
In Wichita Falls, he discovers a higher calling, which is the real story of this novel. For a fifty dollar gold piece, he agrees to return a ten-year-old orphaned white girl to her relatives, a 400-mile journey south to San Antonio. Four years earlier she had been kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians.
And so we have a journey story about an odd couple, an old man and a young girl. There are raiding parties, cultural clashes with the young Johanna, broken wagon wheels, abandoned farms, harsh land and weather, immigrants from all over Europe, and definitely some bad people: "Human aggression and depravity still managed to astonish him." And so at night Captain Kidd says his prayers for "so many people, so much harm." The arrival in San Antonio isn't what he expects, and forces him to make difficult choices late in his life.
News of the World was nominated for a 2016 National Book Award.