Review: In ‘News of the World,’ Unlikely Companions Bond on a Perilous JourneyNew York Times
By Janet Maslin
Paulette Jiles was a poet before she became a novelist. And it certainly shows. Her new novel, the 2016 National Book Award nominee “News of the World,” has invited comparisons with both Charles Portis’s “True Grit” (because it involves a girl on a long journey with an older man) and John Ford’s film “The Searchers” (because it involves a man’s journey to “rescue” a white girl who has been kidnapped by Indians, and also involves a long journey). But it’s more like Ms. Jiles’s own “Enemy Women,” an exquisitely written Civil War epic about a woman’s long march to find her lover, or any fiction by Ron Rash, another poet who chooses each word with expert precision.
Like Mr. Rash, Ms. Jiles writes books that bring the natural world to life and are also agonizingly eventful. Her story in “News of the World” is painfully simple. An old man, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, is content to make his living as an itinerant news reader in Texas until he is charged with a much more difficult mission. A white girl, about 10, has been “rescued” from the Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her and killed her immediate family four years earlier. Would he please take her down to the San Antonio region and return her to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle?
This comes at a very bad time for Captain Kidd. It is the winter of 1870, and he is busy spreading the news that the 15th Amendment has just been ratified, extending the right to vote to all men without regard to race or previous condition of servitude. “That means colored gentlemen,” he tells his audiences. “Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks.” He would much rather continue with this than take a strange little girl on a long journey. “I am astonished,” he says, looking at her. “The child seems artificial as well as malign.”
Still, Kidd is an honorable man, and there is no one else who can or will help this girl. So he agrees to take her, even though she is a hellion at the start. To prepare for the journey, a group of Wichita Falls whores tries to bathe and dress her. (At the end of the bath, the tub is on its side, dripping water onto the red flocked wallpaper in their receiving parlor.) She will not answer to Johanna, the name Kidd gives her. He can’t leave her by herself, and he can’t take her anywhere. “God above knew what she would do if presented with dinner on a plate,” Kidd thinks to himself.
As she did with “Enemy Women,” Ms. Jiles seems to have backed up her book with substantial research. She is very interested in what happened to children like Johanna, who wound up suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder and, according to the author, “always” wanted to return to the Indians who had kidnapped them, no matter how brief the period of abduction. As one of the book’s characters says about children separated from their parents and later returned to their families: “In their minds they went. When they came back they were unfinished. They are forever falling.”
So there is persistent suspense throughout “News of the World” about what will happen to Johanna when she and Kidd reach their destination. It goes without saying that the young girl and the older man, a veteran of three wars, will develop an ever closer bond. They will learn to trust each other, though not in a hokey way; Ms. Jiles is much too good to let her book sink into sentimentality. But they both know that a happy ending is an impossibility and that the world in which they live will not let them stay together. The most it will allow them is the series of heated attacks and adventures that animate “News of the World” and allow it to live up to its title for both of them. Neither has had much experience with the kinds of peril the plot throws their way.
“News of the World” is a narrow but exquisite book about the joys of freedom (experienced even by a raging river threatening to overrun its banks); the discovery of unexpected, proprietary love between two people who have never experienced anything like it; pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas; and the reconciling of vastly different cultures (as when Kidd has to explain to Johanna, who is all set to collect a white man’s scalp, that this “is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done). That’s a lot to pack into a short (213 pages), vigorous volume, but Ms. Jiles is capable of saying a lot in few words.
It’s also about a precious, long-gone time when the news was a rare commodity and an expert reader like Captain Kidd could both inform and entertain eager crowds. Scenes in which he notifies towns about what has happened in the wider world are among the book’s most stirring, since they seem so quaint. When he gets to the Gulf Coast, where newspapers are shipped in and easily attainable, he can foresee the end of his profession.
UPDATE: If you click on the book title, it will take you to the Amazon page so that you can order it.
FLAMINGO BOOK CLUB - 2020
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
THE WINTER SOLDIER by Daniel Mason
THE RADIUM GIRLS by Kate Moore
MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim
AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD by Henene Tursten
THE GREAT ALONE by Kirsten Hanna
(Everyone brings a dish)
SAVE ME THE PLUMS by Ruth Reichl
TOUCHED BY THE SUN by Carly Simon
NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles
THE ORPHANS TALE or THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS by Pam Jenoff
(Gift book exchange)
HOLIDAY ON ICE by David Sedaris