Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
In 1870 Texas, Captain Jefferson Kidd makes his living traveling from town to town, giving public newspaper readings. An old man alone but respected, Kidd is recruited to return a ten-year-old girl to San Antonio. The girl, Johanna, was captured by Kiowa Natives as an infant, but she has been returned to the territorial authorities in order to avoid punishment by the United States Cavalry. She doesn’t, however, have any idea how to live among white folks, doesn’t recall any English, and shows no desire to actually return to non-Kiowa people. Nevertheless, Kidd agrees to take her under his charge and make the nearly 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio. Along the way, he contends with an uncooperative Johanna, the political chaos of post-Civil War Texas, kidnappers, and the uncompromising Texas wilderness.
The Stars at Night Are Big and Bright
The author’s use of lyric prose gives a sense of sweep and grandeur even in a brief novel. The style Jiles employs evokes a sense the unsettled frontier and how the characters fit into it. With the characters, the interplay between Kidd and Johanna comes across as a natural, organic development as they bond during the journey in spite of one another. On a similar note, it is interesting to see how Kidd and Johanna transform from presenting the news to actually being a subject of the news as word of their travel spreads (174). Jiles does an excellent job of setting up the plot and explaining what is at stake with it. As such, readers can follow along with the building of attention all the way to the climax. The final chapters work well, wrapping up the conclusion of the plot, how the choices have affected all the characters and finishing the thematic developments that have come together over the whole novel.
Among those thematic points is the concern about what will become of Johanna when she’s forced to reintegrate to white society (124, 192). The whole novel has an undercurrent of many characters questioning whether or not people like Johanna can even be reintegrated. Captain Kidd notes that, “Cultures were mine fields” and readjusting from one to another is difficult for everyone involved (140). The patience and compassion required is a rare trait.
Also running through the novel is the philosophical musing from Kidd, who is questioning the total of his life as a man nearing the end of his days. His lifetime of dealing with the written word and transmitting it to people has worn on him even as he recognizes the value of it. While reflecting on what value he believes the news has, he thinks:
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 the world would be a more peaceful place [....] Then he came to think what people needed, at bottom, was not information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information [....] Then the listener would for a small space of time to drift away into a healing place like curative waters (29-30).
He concludes at this time of his life that what people need is information to widen their horizons and make the world seem like a place worth living in. Thinking even to his time as a messenger-soldier during the War of 1812, he questions if “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” (121). It is this sort of philosophical contemplation that convinces the reader that Kidd is the sort of man who would take on the burden of transporting Johanna.
While most of the author’s stylistic choices work, some are less successful. The lack of punctuation will slow down the reading for some people, especially when there is dialogue without quotation marks to clearly delineate when speaking begins and ends. While Kidd and Johanna are well developed, Almay is not. He is a despicable antagonist, worthy of a reader’s disgust, but he doesn’t remain in the story long enough to instill prolonged menace into the novel. There isn’t the sense of danger from the environment one would expect as in Moby-Dick or even Blood Meridian, another novel about traveling through the unsettled West. This choice on the part of Jiles makes an underlying—perhaps unintentional—argument, that people are the greatest danger. It does diminish some of the tension in the novel when readers consider that the video game Oregon Trail presents greater natural dangers than this novel.
News of the World is a novel worth picking up. It reads quickly, has developed and interesting protagonists, and the construction of the themes and plot all work hand-in-hand. Some of the technical choices may be a hindrance, and other readers may wish there been greater external threats to Kidd and Johanna, but there is little to stand in the way of recommending the novel, especially for anyone interesting in the setting of 1870’s Texas.
Jiles, Paulette. News of the World. William Morrow, 2016.
© 2016 Seth Tomko