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Radio Readers BookByte: Carried Away on the Flood of the World

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This is Leslie VonHolten of Strong City, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

In Paulette Jiles’s book News of the World, 10-year-old Johanna Leonbarger, the child of German immigrant parents who had been murdered, has been reclaimed from the Kiowa family, who have been raising her since she was six years old.

It falls on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, former soldier and printer who is 71-years-old, to deliver her back to her family near San Antonio. Johanna does not want any part in this transfer—she has been happy with the Kiowa, misses her Kiowa family, and holds the customs of her inherited culture close. They move within her very being.

Captain Kidd, being an honorable man, and also a man of the world, educated in some of these customs, is deeply sympathetic to his young charge. What child wouldn’t want to live in concert with the land, bathing in the river, eating bacon with their dirty fingers? But he knows that life will be hard for her if she continues to resist the things considered markers of civilized refinement: dresses and petticoats, dinner plates, small talk.  

Their journey brings them to Simon and Doris, a kind couple. Doris is Irish and has memories of the survivors of the Great Famine. The sight of Johanna brings a rush of tears, the memory of Irish orphans suddenly present. “So alone,” Doris says of Johanna, “twice captured, carried away on the flood of the world.” She explains that Johanna, like the Irish children, have lost their “creation,” and that Johanna has lost hers twice. That Johanna is like a doll—“not real and not not-real.” —quote—“You can put her in any clothing and she remains as strange as she was before because she has been through two creations…. She is asking, where is the rock of my creation?”

In one chapter of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she explores the real-life stories of people who have crossed this creation line like Johanna, from white European settler society to indigenous Native American. There is the most famous, and profoundly fascinating, story of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who in 1527 refused his incompetent commander’s orders and disappeared into the wilds of the new world, only to be discovered a decade later, revered as a healer among Native nations, a man who no longer wore clothes and could only sleep on the floor and spoke several indigenous languages. Like Johanna, he was a completely different person.

Or Eunice Williams, who was taken captive in 1704 by French and Mohawk warriors. Adopted and raised by a Mohawk family, she later married a Mohawk man and raised a family of her own. Yet once discovered by her original family, she refused to return to—quote/unquote “home”—but she did retain a relationship with them. She would even visit throughout her life, although her brother was distressed that she would camp in the nearby meadow, rather than sleep inside her white family’s homes. Eunice was living her two creations. She lived to be 89.

Or Cynthia Ann Parker, the white mother of Quanah Parker who was captured at age nine and lived with the Comanche Nation for 25 years. When she was again kidnapped, this time by Anglo-Americans, and returned to her first family, she mourned the life and children she lost, and never re-adapted to her former culture.

What a journey this life is, and the markers it leaves within us. Imagine if we were to consider our traumas as a “second creation.” How would that change our language, and our world view?

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.