News of the World
After reading its praises from several different people, I finally decided to read News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, and discovered my favorite book of the year. The subject matter of this novel didn’t immediately interest me, but the way it is written, especially the kindness exhibited by the two main characters, reminded me a little bit of last year’s favorite, St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
The novel follows the actions of an old man who has already lived through three wars, most recently the War Between the States, and who “had been at one time a printer but the war had taken his press and everything else” so now he makes a living from the dimes his audience members put in a can while he reads from newspapers and journals in the small towns of north Texas. He was a captain in the military and his name is Kidd, so he is known as Captain Kidd.
After a reading in Wichita Falls, Captain Kidd meets an acquaintance, Britt Johnson, a free black man who goes after Indian captives since recapturing his own son after a year with the Kiowa. Both because there is no one else to do it and because “his life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled,” Captain Kidd finds himself agreeing to transport a ten-year-old girl who had been captured at six years of age by Kiowas back to what is left of her family, an aunt and uncle in San Antonio, where he once lived. He is told her name is Johanna Leonberger and that both of her parents were killed in the raid when she was taken, but she doesn’t speak any English or remember her life before she was six. What she knows is that “my name is Cicada. My father’s name is Turning Water. My Mother’s name is Three Spotted. I want to go home.”
What the girl doesn’t know is that, as Britt tells the captain, “the Kiowa don’t want her. They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive gets you run down by the cav. The Agent said to bring all the captives in or he was cutting off their rations and sending the Twelfth and the Ninth out after them. They brought her in and sold her for fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware….Her mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile.”
Taking the information that the girl “jumped out of the wagon twice between Fort Sill and here” and the gold piece the girl’s relatives have sent for her return, Captain Kidd arranges to have the girl washed and dressed in western clothes while he goes to buy a wagon for them to ride in, finding one that says “Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas” on the side, planning that “his roan mare packhorse could pull it and his bay saddle horse could come behind.” The girl is left at “Lottie’s establishment” where
“It cost them two hours to get her into a bathtub and washed and to dispose of her Kiowa dress. One of the women threw the glass beads and the deerskin dress with its valuable elk teeth out the window. They pulled the feathers from her hair, which was crawling with graybacks….At the end, the tub lay on its side and the water drained between the cracks of the floorboards into the receiving parlor below and stained the red flocking on the wallpaper while the girl’s flat and glassy eyes regarded them all from the floor where she crouched.”
Captain Kidd also dresses for the road, putting his reading suit and hat carefully away because “young people could get away with rough clothing but unless the elderly dressed with care they looked like homeless vagabonds,” an observation that still seems to me to be, largely, true.
After this unpromising start, the old man and the young girl gradually become friends, and then allies. The story of how that happens is marvelous–from their first run-in with an army patrol, when “it was clear that the Captain was not going to let them have her,” through his refusal to give her up when a kindly woman who understands some of what the child is going through offers to take over the journey to her relatives, which makes the old man reflect that “no one wants her for herself,” and then to their defense of themselves and the “Curative Waters” wagon with dimes as ammunition against armed men who want the girl because, as they say, “blond girls are premium.” The Captain fights to keep the girl safe, and the girl fights because that is what she knows.
Watching over this ten-year-old girl and thinking of his adult daughters, the Captain reflects on his life and thinks:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”
Through all their travels, the Captain reads from the newspapers, “of far places and frozen climes, of reports of revolution in Chile, trying to bring them distant magic that was not only marvelous but true.” He avoids conflict, gives advice and quotes pieces he remembers from his former life as a printer. He is kind and slow to judge others, even the girl’s relatives, when he finds them at the end of the trail.
The story of their journey is like the sign on the wall of a printing office they visit:
“CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION
Refuge of all the arts against the ravages of time.”
It’s a story that will give you hope that kindness can prevail, even through the dark days in the history of what we regard as civilization.