I loved everything about this book, from its understated tone to its slowly developing relationship between a retired Civil War Captain and a young girl who was stolen by the Kiowa at age four and given back again six years later.
News of the World tells the story of Captain Kidd, who travels from town to town reading the news in 1870. A friend asks him to deliver the girl to her nearest relatives. The journey takes him from from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, made especially difficult because Johanna can’t communicate with him.
I love a good “journey” story that’s all about character development, as this one is. There’s a reason journeys make for good storytelling. It’s not the coming and going that’s important, it’s how people change along the way.
I especially liked author Paulette Jiles’ thoughtfulness about what happened to young white children when taken in captivity by Native American tribes. Instead of being horribly abused, they came to love their new family. Of course, that could be due more to the psychological impact of captivity on a young child, rather than a statement about the inherent kindness of the tribes. I imagine it’s a complex combination of both. Jiles doesn’t try to answer the question, but her characters certainly ask it a lot. Everyone expects young Johanna to be jumping for joy when she is returned to white people (even though she’s handed around to people she doesn’t know). Her deep sadness confuses people but also makes them think.
I liked the contrast between Johanna and what people expect of white girls that age. Of course she’s expected to be demure and proper, but her upbringing with the Kiowa have given her quite a different set of skills. She has a temper, a mind of her own, and she can fight. She teaches the Captain a few things along the way. But clearly, she will have trouble adapting to living in white society.
The Captain is a fascinating character in his own right. The title of this book, News of the World, comes from the Captain’s current trade. He travels around to small towns, buys newspapers, and then gives a “reading” where he consolidates the interesting headlines for the townspeople who mostly can’t read. He chooses stories that fire the imagination, that make people happy, and that take them to new parts of the world. I would imagine the West in the 1800s is a fairly isolating place, and most people have never left their towns, much less Texas. The Captain’s passionate about what he does – but he’s also traveling to get away from the memory of his dead wife. He’s conflicted by the challenges of living on the road at his age, but not quite ready to settle in one place.
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; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.
It’s an emotional book, but a thoughtful one. Because Johanna can’t speak English the dialogue is sparing but more meaningful because of it. Just the simple way she says “Kep-dun” at times feels full of emotion.
This book provides a great story about the Wild West and the relationships between white men and Native Americans at the time. It’s got plenty of action and drama. But what’s even better is the relationship between these two fascinating characters, who struggle to understand each other.