Paulette Jiles. News of the World. New York: Morrow, 2016. Print.
When done well, a return story is one of the most exciting and satisfying stories to read. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is The Odyssey, still one of the best stories ever written (or sung). The Italian national novel The Betrothed is another great one. Some feature animals like The Incredible Journey and Lassie Come Home. A recent return novel that received such attention is Cold Mountain. Though not a book, O Brother Where Art Thou? is one of the best contemporary films, and it is The Odyssey with a Southern spin.
News of the World is another, and well worth reading. Its time period is similar to that of Cold Mountain. The setting is reminiscent of Blood Meridian, a book reviewed here. However, the comparison stops there. Imagine Blood Meridian but with characters who understand that the world can be an evil place, but instead of lowering themselves to the gutter level of the world, they attempt to exhibit honor and nobility while overcoming obstacles. In other words, more like Odysseus than the kid.
The title of News of the World and the main character’s occupation help put things in perspective. The story is set in the wide-open spaces of Texas after the Civil War in 1871. There has been no elected government since the war ended and the military occupation is mostly interested in keeping away Indian attacks. It is anarchy and requires character to overcome.
Seventy-one-year-old widower Jefferson Kidd had been a militia sergeant from his native Georgia in the War of 1812. He moved to San Antonio, married, had a family, and although he was pushing fifty, he was drafted into the Army for the Mexican War where he would eventually be promoted to Captain. He is known, then, as Captain Kidd, but he is no pirate.
Civil War taxes and censors took away his property and printing trade. Now he travels from town to town in North and Central Texas reading the news. He gets papers from all over the country and even a few from overseas. In these small towns he is popular and respected enough to make a living. He is a nineteenth century news aggregator. We understand that he sees the big picture. He refuses to read controversial political news from Texas because he wants to stress important discoveries and things the rest of the world is interested in. He also knows that people with guns and strong feelings can be dangerous.
While in Wichita Falls, near the Oklahoma border, he agrees to conduct a white girl who was taken captive by the Kiowa when she was six and held for four years back to her relatives near San Antonio. Her parents were killed in the raid, but she has an aunt and uncle. U.S. Government policy is to reunite Indian captives with their original families.
The girl speaks no English. He is told her name is Johanna, but she sees herself as Cicada. About a third of the way through the novel, the Captain realizes that she had spoken German before (there were many German immigrants in Texas at this time) and slowly begins to communicate with her.
But she is behaving like an Indian through and through. She cannot understand why white people live in boxes and even put wood or cloth over the windows and doors. She is far more comfortable living and sleeping in the Captain’s wagon than in a hotel room.
Along the way they have a number of adventures. There are challenges from the weather and flooding rivers. Many people do not understand why Johanna is the way she is. They are tracked for miles by a white slaver who knows that a young blond girl brings a lot more money than a typical Indian woman.
A few local women try to care for Johanna while the Captain is occupied with other business. Some show some understanding; others, none. Before he gets to San Antonio, Johanna is able to acts as the teller collecting the dime admission to his readings.
There are many tender details about caring for horses or fitting clothes. The Captain is always thinking about what he will read at his next reading. Because he usually rides a circuit, he has friends in a number of towns. And, of course, he wants to bring Johanna home. Not only is there anarchy in Texas—itself a challenge for a senior citizen and a ten-year-old girl traveling light—but unlike the wars against the British and Mexican armies, there are no rules of engagement when fighting Indians or those who have no regard for the law.
One town is having a Hatfield-McCoy type feud. The Captain does his best to stay out of it, but the men from one family wonder why the Eastern papers do not carry any news of them. He runs into men who basically have a protection racket (they charge fifty cents, a nice sum but affordable) and others on the trail who show a real concern for their safety.
It is a story that keeps moving and is told well. We care about both main characters. We understand them even if we cannot relate to them. They are clever survivors on this wild Western trail. If Cormac McCarthy had characters with consciences, he might have come up with something like News of the World. Yes, the world can be evil. (See I John 5:19) Yes, the world news tells us that. But there are people and things that still make it a wonderful place.