News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has lived through the American Civil War. At 72 years old, he deserves a break. He now makes his living traveling throughout 1870s Texas reading the news to small audiences. Small town residents love to hear about European wars, the politics of the American east coast, or about the new telegraph wires in Britain, an almost unimaginable piece of technology.
But the Captain’s life changes when he is hired to drive 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger, a recently released Kiowa captive, back to her family in the south of Texas. It’s a long drive through dangerous territory and Johanna does not want to go. Raised by the Kiowa from age 6 to 10, Johanna is a Kiowa now and cannot return to the lifestyle of the white European.
The Captain, whose daughters are grown, takes her under his wing. He addresses her unusual behaviour and manners with the patience of a loving parent. Kontah, she eventually calls him – grandfather.
As the pair cross the Texas landscape, vividly and beautifully described by author Paulette Jiles, they encounter all manner of hazards: from housewives who berate Johanna for her lack of delicacy to debased criminals who would re-capture Johanna for the most depraved purposes. Lawlessness and corruption prevail.
But Johanna is no shrinking violet and despite her youth proves invaluable in a gunfight. She is rightfully suspicious of all whom they encounter. She is shoeless and eats with her hands. She has forgotten both English and German. She is a warrior.
News of the World is steeped in American history and feels meticulously researched. Jiles describes the various immigrant populations in Texas as the time – Irish, British, German, Mexican – and seamlessly blends their cultural differences into the narrative. Freed slaves are now part of the fabric of Texas. The Native American tribes in the area, the Comanche and the Kiowa, are ever-present threats on the frontier. Johanna’s reluctance to return to the non-native world is striking and utterly believable.
But the real magic of this book is the evolving relationship between Captain Kidd and Johanna. Their shared journey and their endurance of many hardships bring them ever closer, until they become like family. Much to his surprise, the Captain grows to care for Johanna. At 72, he is “still in one piece, alive and unaccountably happy.” (p.163)