I had no previous knowledge about and didn’t know what to expect of News of the World (2016) by Paulette Jiles. My first clue was the inside cover map of 1870’s Texas and jacket description of an elderly former military man, Captain Jefferson Kidd, being asked to escort a young girl from the Indian Territory border back to the white German settler-relatives near San Antonio that she was stolen from by the Kiowas when they also killed her parents.
It’s a small book, just over 200 pages and maybe 5 x 7 inches, but it’s my favorite kind of historical novel–it draws you in immediately and doesn’t let you go. I later found out it was a finalist for the National Book Award and was made into a movie with Tom Hanks! (Available on HBO Max.)
Captain Kidd is a veteran of three wars, a widower, and makes his living traveling by horseback, alone (he “had become impatient of trouble and other people’s emotions”) from town to town, to read an assembly of people the news for a dime a person.
A free black man, Britt Johnson, approaches the Captain after one of his readings and asks him to take the girl, Johanna, back to her people in San Antonio. The Captain does, because he knows that having custody of a white girl could be big trouble for Britt, and he knows girls, having raised two daughters. But it will be a difficult journey, not only because she doesn’t speak any English and wants to go back to her Kiowa family, but because there is no telling what they’ll find in any of the towns they stop in. Reconstruction Texas is corrupt and politics, along with river crossings, could be deadly. Until he trusts her not to run off, the Captain calls upon acquaintances in the towns he visits to watch her while he reads.
Johanna does not know the customs of white people, so there are many misunderstandings, but they muddle through, and eventually come to rely upon and even save one another from the danger that always faces young girls alone.
The language is absolutely beautiful–I loved the Captain, and Johanna, as characters, and loved to see their relationship as grandfather and granddaughter blossom. And the landscapes and weather of Texas were well-drawn and descriptive. I want to take a tour of their route!
The only description of a character’s size was of his son-in-law, who had been a Confederate soldier killed in Georgia, who was “too big to be a human being and too small to be a locomotive” and who when he died by falling three stories, “probably made a hole big enough to bury a hog in.” I didn’t take it that Mason was fat, necessarily, just that he was a very large man, a strong man who was the “perfect foil” for his youngest daughter, Olympia, who affected helplessness and refinement and constantly tried to demonstrate how sensitive she was. So I would say it was weight-neutral, since Mason was not specifically described as fat.
I highly recommend News of the World and plan to watch the movie soon.