Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

news of the world coverNews of the World [2016] – ★★★★★

He broke down the .38, cleaned it, reassembled it. He made a list: feed, flour, ammunition, soap, beef, candles, faith, hope, charity” [Jiles, 2016: 177].

The story begins at Wichita Falls, Texas during the winter of 1870 and centres on Captain Kidd, aged seventy-one, who “travel[s] from town to town in North Texas with his newspapers and read[s] aloud the news of the day to assemblies” [Jiles, 2016: 3]. When Captain Kidd comes across a little girl who has recently been an Indian native and is now abandoned to the newness and vulgarities of the civilised world, Captain promises to deliver the girl back to her German-American family in South Texas. The issue for Captain Kidd is that Johanna was taken captive at the age of six and now, at the age of ten, considers herself a Kiowa. What follows is the journey of two vulnerable people on the treacherous road to the area of San Antonio, where Johanna’s aunt and uncle allegedly await her return. This is not only a tale of an exciting journey through the American South, which delves into the culture of native tribes, but also an emotional journey of two people whose resilience to hardship and kindness to strangers are the only guarantors of their survival. 

Much comparison has been made between News of the World and Portis’s True Grit [1968], but, even though there are some similarities in plot and characters, this comparison is a bit misleading and even unkind. Even though News of the World is set in the South, involves travel adventure and gun scenes, as well as an old man and a girl as characters, News of the World still feels fresh as a material and strangely original. Previously on this blog, I shared a quote about the great stories – how no matter how many times they are told, they never bore and feel new, and News of the World is, probably, just such story.

It is very refreshing to see the central character being a seventy-one year old man, who is well past his physical strength/prime. Captain Kidd is a man of diplomacy, who previously fought in wars and came back alive. We get to know about his background story and about his passion for news and information dissemination, about his love for the printing press. Even though Captain Kidd is a practical man who has seen it all in life and has done his share of communal duty, he is still not without a heart or emotional considerations. He truly becomes the character we all admire and respect. Now that Captain Kidd or “an aggregator of news from distant places” [Jiles, 2016: 90] finds himself with the special task of caring for one girl, he faces yet another ordeal which seems far beyond his physical and mental capabilities. The teaming of Captain Kidd and Johanna is striking, and from Luc Besson’s Leon [1994] to Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here [2017], it seems that cinema also cannot resist this effective, “lethal” combination of a girl, the victim, and an older man, the protector, or violence and innocence.

Of course, a large part of the story’s appeal is the situation and psychology surrounding the little girl Johanna. Jiles actually based her character on some real cases of children who were previously held captive by Native American tribes. For example, there was a real story of a ten year old Adolph Korn, who, when returned to the society after only three years of being held captive, never quite managed to readjust to his new life. Similarly, there is a lot of focus in Jiles’s novel on the uncovering of Johanna as a person, and it is really intriguing to read about this little girl, who was taken by an Indian tribe at the age of six and who now, at the age of ten, considers herself as belonging fully to the tribe of Kiowa. Johanna has to accustom herself anew to the civilised world, and the girl in the novel is described as having “none of the gestures or expressions of white people” and “her faultless silence [making] her seem strangely not present” [Jiles, 2016: 33]. It is heart-warming to read about the touching bond that Captain Kidd creates with Johanna over time, and what is impressive is that, even though the novel pulls on emotional heartstrings, it never slides into overt sentimentality as it focuses on this unlikely pairing, two vulnerable people on the road.

As some other reviewers have also pointed out, the author’s economy of words is admirable. News of the World is not a long book, but it feels thick and significant. Jiles manages not only to craft a thrilling story, but to also create the right unforgettable atmosphere. In the book, this is the South at its most dangerous and volatile, and neighbours’ kindness and concern sit uncomfortably with the instances of cruelty and lawlessness. There is a particularly tense scene in the book when Captain Kidd and Johanna have to ward off criminals, and their actions are quire unforgettable.

It is hard to find fault in a book such as this, but the ending does feel a little rushed and lacks certain realism. Besides, Jiles’s references to Russia to describe her villains [2016: 93] or pursuits of children [2016: 107] are surprising, needless and pretty much unfairly biased.

News of the World is an amazing book and a highly enjoyable read with one distinctive witty and to-the-point voice. Paulette Jiles makes a familiar western story seem fresh and exciting, while also not forgetting about that special emotional punch. The novel is recommended especially for those who are into westerns or good old hearty Southern tales.

13 thoughts on “Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

    1. I am glad to hear that. I think this book will be my occasional re-read too. I also liked this book because it never pretended to be anything it was not. The story is simple, the message – powerful and the connections – heart-warming. I do not see what more could one want from such a story.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I love this book, and it’s hard to say why. When I look back at my own review, I see that it was because of the kindness. I do remember that, but I also remember an oddly dreamlike quality about the experience of reading it that is part of why it reminds me of Days Without End, a civil war novel with similar stories of kindness in a big, cruel world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! I understand your feeling of dream-like quality – as soon as I started reading the book, I immediately sensed it is going to be something special. I also agree about the kindness, it plays such a big role in the story. I have Days Without End on my TBR list, I really need to read it soon.

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