Tag Archives: Paulette Jiles

He looks down at the dry earth and he knows that it’s been too dry for marks now for weeks

February roundup

I read fewer books in February than January, but better books. Here they are.

The Crew, by Joseph Kessel

This is a Pushkin Press release written by an author who actually served in the French air corps in World War 1. Here he draws on that experience to tell a story about a young airman, his fellow crewman, and the woman they both love.

A crew live or die by their closeness to each other – their instinctive mutual understanding. Anything which comes between them, which disturbs their bond, risks leaving them exposed and as the book more than once demonstrates death is always waiting above the battle lines. How can you maintain trust though when one of you is sleeping with the other’s wife?

It’s really very good. The air scenes are well done, the pilots and crew are convincing and the relationships work well. I particularly liked that while one never sees the woman’s perspective it’s quite evident that while the characters think of her as an essentially passive object for their affections she’s actually nothing of the kind.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

 

This one’s a classic Greenian tale of colonialism and complicity explored through a jaded British journalist and a dangerously naive American (“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”). As with The Duel, they both love the same woman and Greene uses their relationship with her to explore the colonial powers’ wider relationship with Vietnam itself.

As with The Crew there’s again a sense that both the men are too concerned with what the woman means to them to ever consider what she might mean to herself (“One always spoke of her like that in the third person as though she were not there.”). Greene uses this to tell a tale that can be read purely as personal tragedy or as the tragedy of a nation and as a critique of an entire philosophy of supposedly humanitarian intervention. Brilliant stuff.

How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

The Long Dry, by Cynan Jones

A sparsely written tale of a farmer struggling with an unhappy marriage and problems caused by drought and heat. On finishing it I immediately bought another by Jones.

The prose is lean and muscular, yet poetic at the same time. There’s a tremendous sense of the sheer toughness of rural life – the hard work, the speed and ease with which things can go wrong, but the beauty too. Kimbofo wrote a very good review of it here which I recommend reading.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I bought this because it featured on someone’s end of year list, and then promptly forgot whose. It’s a deceptively simple tale of an elderly retired soldier who now makes his living reading the news to isolated communities. He agrees to take care of a young girl recently recovered from the American Indian tribe who took her captive and to transport her back to her surviving kin.

Along the way they’ll face bad weather and worse men. It’s a really nicely realised classic Western and it might well make my end of year list too. I wrote a full review of it here.

February summary

Only four books read (and none of them very long), but all four were in their different ways excellent. If every month’s reading were as good as that I’d be very happy indeed.

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Filed under Chaze, Elliot, French, Greene, Graham, Historical fiction, Jiles, Paulette, Jones, Cynan, Military fiction, Pushkin Press, Westerns

One cannot think with a ten-year-old Kiowa-German captive throwing soap and ceramics.

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.

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Filed under Jiles, Paulette, US fiction, Westerns