I wanted to be a cowboy when I was little. Or a pioneer, or a rider for the Pony Express. These career choices were influenced by my love of horses, the Little House on the Prairie books and the many TV westerns that underscored my girlhood. But if I had known there was a living in riding from town to town reading newspapers to interested folks, I would have signed on for that job, too. My role model would be Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd of Paulette Jiles’ heartfelt new novel, News of the World (HarperCollins, digital galley).
In 1870 north Texas, the captain is a 71-year-old war veteran, widower, father of two grown daughters. He once owned a printing press, but now he rides from one frontier community to another reading aloud the news to people willing to pay 10 cents to hear about politics in Washington, scandals in Europe and failed expeditions to the Arctic. In Wichita Falls, a cargo hauler offers him a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old girl to her surviving relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was taken captive four years ago by the Kiowa, who recently traded her back to an Indian agent for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” If the captain is reluctant to take the blue-eyed girl with taffy hair on a 400-mile-journey south through the Texas Hill Country, the girl, “Cicada,” is even less enthusiastic. She remembers little of her former life, doesn’t speak English and runs away at the first opportunity.
Still, the gradual, growing bond between the two is intensified by the obstacles they face on their bumpy road trip. For Johanna, it’s civilization embodied by dresses, shoes and bathtubs. For the captain, it’s some brothers who think the newspaper stories should be about their exploits. For both of them, there are the hardships of the trail — finding food, fording rivers — and the attack by outlaws intent on killing Kidd and selling Johanna into white slavery. Johanna proves to be a practical, practiced fighter, although the captain has to stop her from scalping the villains.
Jiles depicts their adventures with an assured ease and a poetic feel for the harsh and lovely landscape, the customs of the time. Readers of Jiles’ Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning will find a similar sensibility of time and place, affecting but unsentimental. Still, the relationship between the captain and Johanna is at book’s heart, and knowing that there must be a reckoning at road’s end caused mine to ache. These two belong together.
The News of the World is a deserved finalist for the National Book Award. But don’t just read all about it. Read it.