I will avoid the absurdity of defending a National Book Award finalist; we can agree that the western can be literature. We have Larry McMurtry and Charles Portis to underline the point. The clean prose of News of the World (William Morrow, 224 pages) similarly explores universal themes of honor, purpose, age, and culture within a detailed period piece, allowing the conventions of bar fights and gunfights, natives and lawless towns, blacksmiths, willing ladies, and Mexican aristocracy to tell a fresh and compelling tale.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through post-Civil War Texas reading from his collection of newspapers, carrying word of the exotic, the novel, the lurid or simply unfathomable. Delivering the message is both his duty and salvation. Of course he was a printer before war destroyed his business, and ink is in his blood.
Kidd is a veteran of three wars; we meet him as a widower, his daughters in far-off Georgia. When after a reading he’s presented with Johanna, ten years old, stolen by the Kiowa four years earlier, ignorant of her own language and culture, and fiercely determined to return to her Kiowa family. Kidd undertakes to return her to her aunt and uncle four hundred miles across Texas. No one else is suitable can take her, but Kidd is resentful: he’s already raised his own daughters. And he’s aware he’s been approached in part because he’s considered elderly and therefore safe. And then, there’s the matter of duty:
“More than ever knowing in his fragile bones that it was the duty of men who aspired to the condition of humanity to protect children and kill for them if necessary.”
Duty and honor are his foundation; they support his self-image and lend him his continuing strength. This is a man who knows well what he owes to others and to himself: he must go out of his way to pay handsomely for two chickens Johanna inadvertently steals. We learn that during his first experience of battle, age sixteen, he risks his life to rescue his Captain and is duly promoted:
“He wrote down, in a neat list, all the obligations of a sergeant because written information was what mattered in this world, from after-action reports to scout maps to the list of company clerk duties.”
So Jiles combines responsibility with the written word…
Both journey and novel begin with the suspicious, unwelcome meeting of two lost people, one very young, terrified, and furious; one old, adrift, and melancholy. Of the two, Johanna is perhaps the less defined character; she is too precocious, too much a fair-haired symbol; we tend to sympathize with her situation more than we do with her as an individual. Understandably remote, she’s recognized as strange even when she’s still and quiet. Her loyalties lie with the Kiowa, but that loyalty will be tested in a highly effective scene towards the end of the book, all the more remarkable because very brief, no more than a glimpsed opportunity.
We travel through a succession of Texas landscapes: flooded valleys, dangerous hills, flat country. Dallas a mere village, San Antonia deconstructing its Mexican past, lingering political tensions inciting violence everywhere.
Jiles eschews quotation marks; her prose is as unquestioning and natural as Texas landscape: flooding rivers, dangerous hill country, endless flats are presented with clam simplicity, appropriately mirroring Kidd himself: straightforward and observant. We trust them both, and lose any idea of separation between the clear-voiced narrator and the white-headed, very tall man gently taking his charge to task with typical humor:
“No. Absolutely not. No. No scalping. He lifted her up and swung her up over the ledges of stone and then followed. He said, It is considered very impolite.”
Jiles pays exacting attention to costume. Her Kidd is necessarily careful of his wardrobe, and Jiles is equally careful to record each outfit and change of clothing:
“Captain Kidd shifted his shoulders under the heavy dreadnought overcoat. It was black, like his frock coat and vest and his trousers and his hat and his blunt boots. His shirt had last been boiled and bleached and ironed in Bowie; a fine white cotton with the figure of a lyre in white silk. It was holding out so far. It was one of the little things that had been depressing him. The way it frayed gently on every edge.”
And again, given another opportunity:
“Captain Kidd changed to his duck coat and trousers of jeans cloth, a double-breasted plains shirt. He put on his old traveling hat with the uneven brim. He laid his black reading suit in careful layers into his carpet bag and his good black hat for readings into a tin hatbox.”
As for Johanna, her clothes represent her alien, confusing confinement:
“She was utterly alone, trapped in peculiar clothing, a dress made of cloth with blue and yellow stripes and a tight waist. She had been laced into a thing that she could only imagine was for magical purposes, meant to confine her heart and her breath in a sort of cage to hold her forever like a shut fist that would never open.”
But then Jiles takes care with every material object, however apparently insignificant. In this wide and empty world every possession is precious: a cake of soap, a small stove, a Mexican-made jorongo that becomes Johanna’s shelter and security blanket. Things matter. Kidd’s horses, Pasha and Fancy matter, as does the Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas wagon Kidd acquires for their travels. They are familiars, they encapsulate home, they hold within themselves the past and future, and accordingly must be cherished and protected. They contain Kidd’s childhood home in Georgia, his life as a printer and husband in San Antonia.
The novel is bursting with sounds as well, intricate set pieces, unique voices. We can almost hear Johanna’s constant “Kep-dun!” Kidd wakes to sound: “He heard the noise of a little stream nearby running into the Brazos and the hush, hush sound of small new pecan leaves in the breeze. He heard Johanna crying out, Eat! Now you eat! And the mare’s bell ringing as the horses grazed.”
Everything is always speaking: “They rolled through a bur oak forest with the steady click of the break in the iron tire counting out its revolutions; Fancy’s harness jingled. Crooked zigzag limbs sifted through the air. Beneath them the crisp shells of acorns made crushed sounds.”
Or there is Johanna chanting in victory after a gunfight: “Her taffy hair flew in thick strands, powdered with flour, and she took up the butcher knife and held the blade above her head and began to sing. Hey hey Chal an aun!”
She practices her English, trying Kidd’s patience: “Wan foot, doo foots, wan hont, doo honts, doo hoas, big hoas, lidda hoas . . . “
“Johanna, shut up.”
“Cho-henna chut up!”
Johanna’s English comes from Kidd, of course. Communication is urgent. For Kidd, the message in the print is what matters. Crucially, he comes to this business of through war:
“At that time his hair was a deep brown tied up in a pigtail and nothing pleased him more than to travel free and unencumbered, alone, with a message in his hand, carrying information from one unit to another, unconcerned with its content, independent of what was written or ordered therein.”
And out of this delight comes a sense of purpose, and so a philosophy:
“If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five. And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information. And he, like a runner, immobile in his smeared printing apron bringing it to them. Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”
And on Kidd travels, keeping solitude and old age at bay, sharing the news in beautifully researched, evocative passages; we delight in the events reported and also at the wonder with which they’re received:
“He read of the attempt by the British Colonial government to enumerate the peoples under their rule, a census, in short, and the rebellion of the Hindu tribes against the census takers because married women were not permitted to say aloud the names of their husbands. (Nods; they are all beyond rational thought in those far countries.) He read about a great windstorm in London that toppled chimney pots (What is a chimney pot? He could see it on their faces.) and then of the new packing plants in Chicago which would take any amount of cattle if they could only get them. In the crowd were men who were contemplating driving cattle all the way to Missouri if they could evade the savage tribes and they listened with deep interest. The Captain read of the Irish pouring into New York City, ragged crowds unloaded from the passenger steamer Aurora, of the railroad
driving into the plains of the new state of Nebraska, of another eruption of Popocatépetl near Mexico City.”
He reads, and he reaches a conclusion that reflects his humility, his sense of purpose, his acknowledgement of the unknowable, perhaps unchangeable nature of the world. It’s an implicitly comfortable state of mind.
“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.”
Thus in the end Johanna too must be handed over, and the story comes round. She is his charge but not his own, and there are her aunt and uncle expecting her. She must be delivered. Only Kidd grows increasingly uneasy at this duty which he has undertaken, which is just, and for which he has been handsomely paid, even knowing it cannot end well for the child.
Jiles has researched the sad fate of kidnapped children rescued from the Kiowa, returned to a world they no longer recognize nor desire. Remarkably, after only a few months with the Kiowa such children fully convert in spirit and never regain the ability to belong in their own worlds, or to move comfortably among their own people. Clearly Kidd is right to fear for Johanna:
“As long as they were traveling she was content and happy and the world held great interest forbut Captain Kidd wondered what would happen when she found she was never to wander over the face of the earth again, when she was to be confined forever to her Leonberger relatives in a square house that could not be broken down and packed on a travois. He had a failing feeling around his heart when he thought of it. Cynthia Parker had starved herself to death when she was returned to her white relatives. So had Temple Friend. Other returned captives had become alcoholics, solitaries, strange people. They were all odd, the returned captives. All peculiar with minds oddly formed, never quite one thing or another. As Doris had said back in Spanish Fort, all those captured as children and returned were restless and hungry for some spiritual solace, abandoned by two cultures, dark shooting stars lost in the outer heavens.”
So the novel reaches is natural crises, a struggle between heart and honor. It’s utterly predictable, of course, yet somehow completely undiscovered.
–Mike Miller, author of Worthy of This Great City, 2016