Last month I decided to join Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s new book club that she’s hosting through her website. It’s $10 a month and allows you to participate in discussions of the books chosen each month in an online forum or on the book club’s Facebook group, as well as take part in a scheduled live discussion for each month’s book, just like in a regular book club. In addition, there are interesting courses hosted in webinar format like this month’s course on bullet journaling for Book Lovers. I’m not paid to promote her Book Club or anything, I’m just trying it out and sharing my impressions with you.
So far I haven’t interacted that much on the site, but I’m hoping to do so now that I’ve finished January’s pick, which was Paulette Jile’s News Of The World. I really found it interesting to read through the discussion topics and the contributions of other book club participants, which helped me solidify some of my own views of the book. I definitely had been hearing a lot about News Of The World in the bookish community, so I was happy that it was Anne’s pick for this month. It’s a surprising and adventurous historical fiction novel, which pairs two very different main characters together and brings the Texan frontier to life.
News Of The World
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this morally complex, multi-layered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.
Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.
What I Liked
The pairing of two very different main characters. I found the story of Johanna – captured by the Kiowa’s after they murdered her parents and now being returned to ‘civilization’ – a very captivating one. On the one hand the reader would be hard pressed to believe that a young girl would be better off left with a tribe whose members killed her parents, and on the other Johanna has clearly imprinted with the Kiowa tribe and seems to have found elements of freedom and a closeness to nature in her new life that she does not want to abandon. Juxtaposed to this strong-willed little girl is Captain Kidd, an elderly man who after the passing of his beloved wife has committed himself to a life of wandering, moving from town to town to read news stories out loud for the illiterate or uninformed members of the Texan frontier society. Johanna and Captain Kidd can both be seen as ‘foreigners’ in their own right, no longer fitting within a community or family that can help others identify them. I felt that taking on Johanna’s care revived Captain Kidd from a life in which he had resigned himself to a lonely routine as an outsider. Her youth and need for protection brought back purpose in Captain Kidd’s life, and Captain Kidd ends up benefiting from Johanna’s companionship as much as she does from his guardianship. Their growing and deepening relationship was actually my favorite part of the novel.
Historical setting. I grew up playing The Oregon Trail, and watching movies that captured the wildness of the U.S. frontier like Far and Away. Paulette Jile’s News Of The World really brings this historical time period and the Texas locations to life through her descriptions of the different towns through which Kidd and Johanna travel, and the people who inhabit them. Whether it’s fording a river (which I always died trying to do on The Oregon Trail), fighting road bandits, eating hunks of bacon and beans for breakfast, or patronizing the local hotels for a 50 cent bath, the wealth of historical details in the novel really made me feel like I was learning something about life in the ‘Wild West’ while enjoying the plot of the story itself. Book club participants cited a few anachronisms in the book, which I honestly didn’t pick up on. Ultimately, I was carried by Jiles across the expanses of Texas alongside Kidd and Johanna on their wagon, and I was right alongside them as they dealt with broken wagon wheels, homemade ammunition and travel clothes in need of washing after days ankle deep in Texan mud.
Captain Kidd’s profession as itinerant news reader. So basically the main character in the novel travels from town to town, reading more or less recent news items to a rapt audience of people who are either illiterate or who see having the news read to them as excellent entertainment. I didn’t even know this profession had existed historically until I read News Of The World and I was immediately entranced. (I actually still am not 100% sure that this was an actual profession since Google did not provide confirmation, but apparently Jiles based her account on an ancestor of a friend, so I’m going to assume it’s accurate). I loved how Kidd took the time each evening to decide which combination of news items would make for the most successful reading depending on his audience – mostly tales of far off lands that would not get them riled up about local issues. When you think about the role that news plays in our world today, with all the raving about fake news and the discrediting by major politicians of legitimate news outlets, it was nice to hearken back to a time when by virtue of a lack of technology, the news was a simpler thing. There’s no way back and certainly the coming of the information age and of global communication technology has brought a lot of positive progress in its wake, but it was nice to think back to when news brought people together and helped them escape the worries of their everyday lives instead of adding to them. I guess that’s what we have excellent historical fiction novels like this one for now.
What I Didn’t Like
Length and pace. The book was on the shorter side for me, at 244 pages, and it was a nice reprieve from the longer novels and nonfiction picks I’ve been reading lately. I felt like none of the chapters lagged, and like there was always some new event or development in the story line to keep the reader’s interest. However, I also thought that with a few additional chapters, the author could have brought more depth to Johanna and Captain Kidd’s relationship and to the way in which it developed. At times I also wished that the author could provide more details about the Native American Kiowa tribe whose presence is really only hinted at throughout the novel. They were the tribe that Johanna wanted to return to, and I think that knowing more about them may have added complexity to the reader’s interpretation of Johanna’s desire to rejoin them.
A vivid portrayal of the friendship that is born between an elderly itinerant news reader and a captive girl as they traverse the Texan frontier together. Excellent and imaginative historical fiction.
About The Author (from her Wikipedia page)
Paulette Jiles-Johnson (born 4 April 1943) is an American-born Canadian poet and novelist. Born in Salem, Missouri, she was educated at the University of Illinois in Spanish literature. Jiles moved to Canada in 1969. She is married to Jim Johnson and has three stepchildren and six grandchildren. Currently she lives in San Antonio,Texas.
Other Popular Novels By Paulette Jiles
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
For the Colleys of southeastern Missouri, the War between the States is a plague that threatens devastation, despite the family’s avowed neutrality. For eighteen-year-old Adair Colley, it is a nightmare that tears apart her family and forces her and her sisters to flee. The treachery of a fellow traveler, however, brings about her arrest, and she is caged with the criminal and deranged in a filthy women’s prison. But young Adair finds that love can live even in a place of horror and despair. Her interrogator, a Union major, falls in love with her and vows to return for her when the fighting is over. Before he leaves for battle, he bestows upon her a precious gift: freedom.
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Oil is king of East Texas during the darkest years of the Great Depression. The Stoddard girls—responsible Mayme, whip-smart tomboy Jeanine, and bookish Bea—know no life but an itinerant one, trailing their father from town to town as he searches for work on the pipelines and derricks; that is, when he’s not spending his meager earnings at gambling joints, race tracks, and dance halls. And in every small town in which the windblown family settles, mother Elizabeth does her level best to make each sparse, temporary house they inhabit a home. But the fall of 1937 ushers in a year of devastating drought and dust storms, and the family’s fortunes sink further than they ever anticipated when a questionable “accident” leaves Elizabeth and her girls alone to confront the cruelest hardships of these hardest of times. With no choice left to them, they return to the abandoned family farm.
The Color Of Lightning
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
In 1863, as the War Between the States creeps inevitably toward its bloody conclusion, former Kentucky slave Britt Johnson ventures west into unknown territory with his wife, Mary, and their three children, searching for a life and a future. But their dreams are abruptly shattered by a brutal Indian raid upon the Johnsons’ settlement while Britt is away establishing a business. Returning to find his friends and neighbors slain or captured, his eldest son dead, his beloved and severely damaged Mary enslaved, and his remaining children absorbed into an alien society that will never relinquish its hold on them, the heartsick freedman vows not to rest until his family is whole again. A soaring work of the imagination based on oral histories of the post-Civil War years in North Texas, Paulette Jiles’s The Color of Lightning is at once an intimate look into the hearts and hopes of tragically flawed human beings and a courageous reexamination of a dark American history.
Have you read News Of The World or any of Paulette Jiles’ other books? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for memoir Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, astronomy related titles Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and medical memoir Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD and T.J. Mitchell.
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