This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.
I loved reading News of the World by Paulette Jiles for a few reasons, but the main reason is so simple that I rarely credit books for this: It’s a charming story with a tender, happy ending.
The setting is 1870 Wichita Falls, and Captain Kidd—a seasoned war veteran and widower with two grown daughters and two grandsons in Louisiana—is mostly satisfied in life, though beginning to feel change. He makes his living by traveling town to town and reading newspapers—the news of the world—to crowds for 10 cents per head.
His is a carefully curated performance, so to speak, as he avoids articles about local Texas politics, and instead focuses on the faraway: political news from DC, then tales of derring-do, then unusual customs from around the world, and then after expanding their minds, finally an article or two meant to bore his audience so they will be ready to leave without agitation. But from town to town, Captain Kidd begins noticing that, quote, “His life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled…” and “a slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas.”
Enter Johanna. She was kidnapped at the age of six and living among the Kiowa. If she remembers her previous life as a child of German immigrants in south Texas, she doesn’t let it show, and she certainly has no notion of returning. Captain Kidd is paid to return her to her aunt and uncle. He is concerned about her fate, seeing how she prefers to walk barefoot, that her language is Kiowa, that her stories are Kiowa, and that she is attuned to the seasons and sounds of nature. He worries. How will this child ever take to lace and dining utensils and Western notions of good manners?
What unfolds is a story of adventure, a fictional footnote in the complicated history of the American West. What News of the World truly is, however, is a story of friendship between a man who feels duty bound to do what he’s promised, a girl who recognizes the good in people’s souls, and characters along the way who want them to survive and prosper.
The author does not fall to sentimentality, or at least too much of it. The coarseness of this time period is not sugarcoated. There are creepy men who attempt a kidnapping, and there are mean and hardscrabble settlers whose soft spots in their souls are long calloused over. There are of course the sad circumstances that bring Captain Kidd and young Johanna together to begin with. And the powder keg politics of Texas in 1870. This book, though lovely, is no walk in the garden. (Well, maybe it is if you get down to the ground level and see what the bugs and snakes and rabbits are doing to one another.)
In this toxic day, it feels almost countercultural to enjoy a novel for its simple grace and pleasantness. As I was reading News of the World, I was doing my usual search for grand statements on the human condition or underlying corrective to the ways we perceive history. And those elements are there, I don’t want to undervalue that. But I found myself deeply enjoying the book because it is sweet, and Johanna is free and captivating, and Captain Kidd is kind, and he and Johanna adore one another. And there is a happily ever after.
This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, hoping you’ll join us in reading News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Find more at HPPR.org or Like us on Facebook.