By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger.
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so simple, rich, textured and real that you know some invisible line has been crossed, that something new has been created that will live on to become a classic.
Such is the case with Paulette Jiles’ novel News of the World(William Morrow.) It’s a gentle, yet at times raucous, leisurely, yet at times tumultuous, understated, yet at times definitive book that lives on long after it has been read.
The premise is novel in itself. The main character, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico, is facing the twilight years of his life in the post-Civil War America of the 1870s. He has fashioned a livelihood in Texas, traveling from town to town by horseback before the advent of radio, reading newspaper articles from around the globe to audiences who either cannot read or don’t have access to news outside of their immediate environs.
He brings them knowledge, ideas and perspectives, dreams of life outside of their dull and often harsh existence—all for the price of 10 cents and an hour or so of their time.
“His eyeglasses were round and rimmed in gold over his deep eyes. He always laid his small gold hunting watch to one side of the podium to time his reading. He had the appearance of wisdom and age and authority which was why his readings were popular and the reason the dimes rang in his coffee can.”
Such was the power of his message, and his appearances eagerly awaited, that “when they read his handbills men abandoned the saloon, they slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their fire lit homes, they left cattle circled and bedded beside the flooded Red (River) to come and hear the news of the distant world.”
Into this settled routine of meandering travel from town to town, Kidd is given a unique challenge. In Wichita Falls, he is paid $50 in gold—an enormous sum—to deliver a 10-year-old girl to her relatives across the sprawling, untamed state to a small town near San Antonio.
The task? She is a returned captive, snatched from her German immigrant parents murdered in a raid when she was 6 and raised as a Kiowa. She knows no English (just fragments of German and fluent Kiowa, which Capt. Kidd does not know) and despises those who “rescued” her and their European way of life.
The bulk of the novel is comprised of the difficulties they share—in battling the elements, highway men, their pasts, language and upbringing, their expectations of themselves and others, their own inner demons and the hopes and fears that shadow their lives.
Presenting seemingly impossible challenges, News is a heart-warming saga of an old man and a young girl who forge a bond of love, trust and respect across a great divide of cultures in flux.
This is a novel that leaves the reader in awe. It’s beautiful, simple, profound and poetic. And it lingers in the heart and mind long after the last page is turned.
Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.