The News of the World recalls a simpler time when news from afar was not instantaneous. Before tweets and posts, televised stories and radio broadcasts, people got their information from newspapers, often weeks or months after the events occurred.
In post-Civil War Texas, residents of small towns looked forward to visits from a tall, distinguished man named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. Now retired, the captain traveled from town to town on horseback delivering the news of the world. For ten cents a head, locals filled the room to hear the 71-year-old captain read newspaper articles from faraway places such as Boston, India and England. He was more popular in the remote towns of north and west Texas, where newspapers were scarce and many people could not read. He avoided reading about Texas politics because fights would inevitably break out between supporters and detractors of Andrew Hamilton, the provisional governor appointed by President Andrew Johnson.
When Captain Kidd arrived in Witchita Falls to do a reading, some old acquaintances offered him a fifty-dollar gold piece to return a girl to her family. The 10-year-old child named Johanna was taken six years ago by members of the Kiowa tribe after they murdered her parents. The U.S. Army recovered the girl and wanted her brought to her surviving relatives, an aunt and uncle in rural Texas. The task was difficult because the girl thought of herself as a Kiowa and did not want to leave her Native American family. With great reluctance, the Captain agreed to take the unhappy child, who did not know how to behave in “civilized’’ company. Returning children who were captives often did not go well. “All those captured as children and returned were restless and hungry for some spiritual solace, abandoned by two cultures, dark shooting stars lost in the outer heavens.’’ When the unusual traveling companions embarked on their journey, they eventually began to trust each other and form a bond while facing incredible dangers along the way.
The News of the World, at just over 200 pages, is a slight book packed with lyrical writing. No word is wasted telling the remarkable story of Captain Kidd and Johanna. The characters are memorable and colorful. The author offers a strong sense of place while giving the reader a fascinating glimpse into the tumultuous times of the Texas Territory before it became a state of the Union. I was not surprised when Paulette Jiles’ novel was announced as a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s that good.