When an accomplished poet turns pen to prose, readers ofttimes are rewarded with work of startling beauty.
Such is the case with poet-turned-novelist Paulette Jiles’ latest book, “News of the World,” an exquisitely told tale set in north Texas shortly after the end of the Civil War.
“News” centers on an unlikely duo. Itinerant, aging Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd makes his living by reading the latest world and national news to paying audiences across lightly populated north Texas. Ten-year-old Johanna, kidnapped during an Indian raid in which her parents were killed, recently has been freed by the U.S. Army from four years of Kiowa captivity. The Captain agrees to return the orphaned Johanna to her nearest kin, an aunt and uncle far to the south, and the odd pair embark on an epic trek across unforgiving, rain-soaked Texas that forms the backbone of the book.
While reminiscing about his long and troubled life, Captain Kidd, the grizzled, widowed veteran of three American wars, faces difficulties and danger during the 400-mile journey with Johanna that include rising floodwaters, marauders bent on capturing the orphan and selling her into prostitution, and, most notably, Johanna herself. No longer capable of speaking English, Johanna is committed to escaping back to Indian country, even if it means killing the Captain to do so. As the miles pass, however, “the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other,” Jiles writes of her story, “forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.”
The owner of a small Texas ranch, Jiles knows firsthand the terrain and travails faced by the Captain and Johanna. Using spare yet evocative language, she tells the story with intimate detail and heartbreaking realism.
When, finally, the two reach their journey’s end, the Captain faces a wrenching decision. Should he leave Johanna with her aunt and uncle, who see their niece as nothing more than a slave, or should he become, in the eyes of the law, a kidnapper himself ?
Readers who prefer to learn Southwest history through nonfiction may turn to such books as Hampton Sides’ bestselling “Blood and Thunder” and S.C. Gwynne’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist “Empire of the Summer Moon.” Those, however, who would prefer to explore the same territory in the thrall of a fine work of historical fiction need look no further than Jiles’ captivating “News of the World.”
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of seven books. “Yellowstone Standoff ” (Torrey House Press), the third book in the National Park Mystery Series, will be out in June. See scottfranklingraham.com.