Title: News of the World
Author: Paulette Jiles
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Print length: 209 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
In the aftermath of the Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.
In the wake of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.
In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.
Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.
Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself.
In News of the World, we meet the honorable Captain Kidd, a 71-year-old widower who makes a living these days traveling from town to town in Northern Texas, reading newspaper articles aloud to gathered crowds, at a dime a piece per listener. It’s a pretty good life. Captain Kidd is respected wherever he goes, and his readings, in his authoritative voice, offer his listeners a view of the wider world and a chance to escape day-to-day reality, even if only for an hour.
The Captain’s world is turned upside down when an old friend asks him to take on the task of returning a rescued child to her relatives. At age six, Johanna’s parents were murdered and she was captured by Kiowa raiders. Now ten, Johanna considers the Kiowa her family and remembers nothing of her former life — but her adopted family has sold her back to the local government agents, so she’s truly lost all sense of belonging.
Captain Kidd reluctantly agrees to the task, which involves a very long journey through potentially dangerous territories, all the while accompanied by a hostile, strange girl who absolutely does not want to cooperate. It sounds like a nightmare.
But as the miles unwind, the two reach first a mutual tolerance, then an understanding, and finally true affection. The Captain protects Johanna, placing himself at risk to stand between her and danger, and slowly, she learns to trust him.
Their journey is slow and eventful, and they face obstacles at every turn. Yet this beautiful novel never feels like it lags. It’s lovely to see the affection building between these two complex characters, and each challenge or danger presents yet another opportunity for us to learn more about who they are and what makes them tick.
The writing is just gorgeous. The descriptions of the terrain, the towns, and the people are detailed and lovely. The author truly paints with her words, and I felt like I was there along the dusty roads and by the creeks, riding along in their creaky wagon and looking for cover when there was danger ahead.
The two main characters are both complicated people with harsh pasts to remember and come to terms with. Captain Kidd is a fundamentally loving and kind man, but he’s also fiercely protective and doesn’t have time or patience for fools or wrongdoers. Johanna has a turbulent inner life that we learn about in bits and pieces, and it’s amazing to see how she finds strength to survive.
The audiobook narration is fantastic. The narrator captures the feeling of a fireside story — I felt like I was listening to an old-fashioned tale, almost like I was attending one of Captain Kidd’s readings, if only he were sharing a Western rather than reading a newspaper.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a couple of years now, and I’m so glad to have finally read it. This was my first book by Paulette Jiles, but it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.