News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
This is a slightly unusual one for me which I only read to be honest because it was on an end of year list that I can’t now find. It’s a rather filmic western, but a very good one and it’s impressively packed in to a fairly light 229 pages.
The setup is simple, as it tends to be with good Westerns. 71 year old former-printer Jefferson Kyle Kidd, known as Captain Kidd due to his past army service, agrees to take a ten year old girl recovered from the Kiowa back home to her people down south.
Johanna, the girl, was taken by the Kiowa four years ago. They slaughtered her immediate family but took her and raised her as one of theirs. Nobody knows why. There were other children, younger and older, all of whom were killed alongside the parents.
Four years on and the Kiowa are under increasing pressure from US forces. They return their captives, including Johanna who by now considers herself fully Kiowa and has no memory of her earlier life. That’s twice she’s been ripped from a family. She doesn’t even know why Captain Kidd is transporting her.
She had the carriage of every Indian he had ever seen and there was a sort of kinetic stillness about them and yet she was a ten-year-old girl with dark blond hair in streaks and blue eyes and freckles.
The Captain supports himself by reading the news. He carries a pack of newspapers and travels to rural towns where he books a town hall or bar or whatever and reads word of far off places and extraordinary events to the news-starved locals.
When they read his handbills men abandoned the saloon, they slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left the cattle circled and bedded beside the flooding Red to come and hear the news of the distant world.
The news he reads is sometimes political, sometimes scientific, sometimes of distant countries those present barely know even by name let alone by location. He brings the world to the towns he visits. You pay a dime at the door and for an hour or so you’re transported utterly away from the everyday.
Johanna’s people aren’t really on the Captain’s route, but he’s paid well to take her there. Along the way they’ll face floods, bad weather, bandits and worse. It’s like a negative image of The Searchers.
The Captain is a sympathetic figure, intelligent and honourable but lonelier than he realises. At first he finds Johanna to be a dangerous semi-feral intrusion into his settled life but increasingly he realises how arid that life had become.
Johanna meanwhile is neither of one world nor the other – no longer the German-American she once was, increasingly no longer Kiowa either. As one character comments:
[…] she is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.
Part of what makes News work is its pacing. There is one absolutely stand-out gunfight which is very well realised, but mostly it’s quieter moments shared against the tense backdrop of a journey through thinly settled lands far outside the reach of any helpful law.
Jiles captures the tensions of the time: the fallout of the Civil War; the slow squeezing out of the Kiowa and the Comanche by settlers and soldiers; the melting-pot tensions of Germans and Irish and newly emancipated (but far from accepted) African-Americans. At the same time, she leavens it all with some nicely judged humour, as here when the Captain intervenes to stop Johanna’s intended celebration of an unexpected victory:
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.
All journeys have their ending, one way or another, and as the Captain and Johanna near theirs the question of whether he’ll actually hand her over becomes more pressing. Her “people” are relatives of her parents but they’d never actually met her and she’ll never be what they’d consider normal. If the Captain gives her up that’s a third family lost, but does he have any right to try to keep her? And anyway, is an itinerant old man really the right guardian for a deeply troubled child?
It’s easy to imagine News of the World as a film. It would of course be directed by John Ford and I can easily imagine Shootist-era John Wayne as the Captain. I’m not sure who would play Johanna, perhaps Kim Darby though the two look nothing alike. In any event, it’s a tribute to News that those are the sorts of names it brings to mind.
I took some persuading to read this. When I first read a positive review of it (which I’ve since lost details of) I took note, but it sounded a bit formulaic and Westerns aren’t really my genre. Then it came up in the same person’s end of year list (also lost) so I looked again. I’m glad I did so.
For me a good Western is uncluttered. It allows space for the landscape and the characters to breathe, and it keeps the story simple so both can do so. News of the World tells its story cleanly and manages to be sympathetic to its characters without being sentimental. It is charming and persuasive and now that I’ve read it I’m not at all surprised it made somebody’s end of year list.