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My Obsession with Paulette Jiles

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Years ago, in high school and college, it was frequent that I would fall in love with an author.  When I discovered EAST OF EDEN, for example, I rushed to read everything Steinbeck.  I did the same with Kurt Vonnegut, James Lee Burke,  and Toni Morrison,, to name a few. 

Later, as a busy adult, my obsession with authors subsided.  Yes, I still read a lot, but not so much compulsively focusing on some new author I’d just stumbled across.

That was before I discovered Paulette Jiles.

The first book I read by Paulette Jiles was a recent one:  NEWS OF THE WORLD.  The story seems simple enough:       Grizzled ex-army captain currently makes his living by reading newspapers to audiences across Texas.  He is offered money to return a 10-year-old white girl kidnapped by the Kiowa.  Girl believes she is Kiowa, has no desire to live with white relatives she has never met.  Bond forms between old army captain and Johana, the little girl.

But it’s the execution of the story that makes Jiles’ writing so memorable.  The author  lives in Texas.  Those of us who grew up in Southwest Oklahoma and North Texas, recognize the setting.  When the characters are crossing the Red River or passing through downtown Wichita Falls, we are there too.  We picture the place when Jiles writes, “The road wound along the south edge of the river in the great valley of the Red.  At some distant time, the river had been there, tearing away land; over the centuries it moved like a big red snake from one side of its valley to the other.”

Jiles does an incredible amount of historical research before she writes.  Equally, if not more importantly, she understands people.  Her characters come alive for us almost as soon as we meet them.  Their language is simple but powerful.  They talk like people we know.  At one point the captain realizes that Johana’s life won’t be easy when she is returned.  “The girl is trouble and contention wherever she lands,” he thinks. “No one wants her for herself.  A redheaded stepchild destined for the washhouse.”

After read ng NEWS OF THE WORLD, I devoured STORMY WEATHER, a novel about oil and horse racing and farming in Texas during the Great Depression.  I couldn’t stop reading, but when I turned the last page, I regretted my hurry:  now I missed the tough Stoddard girls and their mother, who learned to survive.  Heck, I even missed their horse Smoky Joe!

Next, I found ENEMY WOMEN, and learned about a time in Missouri during the Civil War when mothers and sisters who smuggled food to their husbands or sons were arrested and imprisoned by the Union army. The fictional story of Adair and her flight from prison is interspersed with actual letters, documents, and diaries of the time.

Most recently, I was captivated by THE COLOR OF LIGHTNING, a story about Britt, a former slave living free in North Texas after the Civil War.  Britt’s wife and children are taken in an Indian raid, and much of the story deals with his search for them, how he rescues them, and how the family must deal with the changes in their lives after they return.  The violence of the family’s capture is horrific.   The emotions the characters experience are real.  At the end of the book, we learn that Britt Johnson was a real person who negotiated the release of several captives.

What can I say?  My latest obsession with an author, Paulette Jiles, has introduced me to details of history that I never knew before, it’s rekindled my love for the part of the country where I grew up, and it’s refreshed my respect for fellow human beings.

This is Lynne Hewes in Cimarron, happily reading Radio Readers’ new selection of books.