Imagine a world with no internet news. For the Baby Boom generation that’s not impossible. We grew up reading newspapers and watching TV sets that offered us trusted news anchors like Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw. We typed on typewriters bearing single sheets of paper, not keyboards attached to computer screens and the world, and yet the internet is now such an entrenched part of our daily lives that it sometimes seems like it’s always been this way. The speed of technology fogs our memories even if the technology itself never forgets–unless it crashes. And yet some things don’t change. We hunger for news. People have always hungered for news.
In 1870, retired Army Captain Jefferson Kidd makes a modest living traveling through North Texas giving readings from big city newspapers published in America and abroad. His horse takes him from town to town. He posts flyers at each new stop, rents one large space for a night, and listens to the cha-ching of dimes in an empty paint can–the cost of entry for a person hungry for news of the world. Sizing up his audience Kidd chooses his news stories with care, ever alert for trouble. Tensions still run high during post-Civil War Reconstruction.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles is a slender historical novel, which sounds like an oxymoron. Ever read an historical that’s short? Nevertheless, this one is and it’s the best of time machines, transporting the reader back to a period when Texas–our 28th state–was still very much a dangerous frontier. The novel won’t arrive in bookstores until October, but I was fortunate to receive an advance copy with no strings attached. I loved it enough to write this post.
Captain Kidd’s got a strong voice and commanding presence–a Wild West version of Walter Cronkite–but his news story readings are simply the wagon wheels that drive the plot. At a reading in Wichita Falls, Kidd is approached by a group of men charged with returning a kidnapped 10-year-old girl to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle residing near San Antonio. It’s 400 treacherous miles away, but they think Kidd has better odds of getting her there in one piece. Payment is a $50 gold coin. Kidd looks at the girl, who’s wearing a deerskin shift with four rows of elk teeth sewn across the front. “Her hair was the color of maple sugar and in it she wore two down puffs bound onto a lock of her hair by their minute spines and also bound with a thin thread was a wing-feather from a golden eagle slanting between them. She sat perfectly composed, wearing the feather and a necklace of glass beads as if they were costly adornments. Her eyes were blue and her skin that odd bright color that occurs when fair skin has been burned and weathered by the sun. She had no more expression than an egg.”
And so the adventure begins. Four years earlier a band of Kiowa Indians had killed Johanna’s parents and little sister in a raid but had taken her away to live with them. Now she’s forgotten how to speak English, acts more like a wild animal, and yearns for the Indian family she left behind. Somehow she and the 70-year-old Captain must learn to trust one another while battling the harsh terrain and a series of bad guys who want to rob, abduct or kill them.
The author based Captain Kidd on a real person, a news reader who travelled the Texas towns. Johanna’s story–kidnapped by Indians who brutally murdered her family–was not uncommon back then. Nor was her longing to go back to her Indian family after her rescue/return to “civilization.” That’s explained within the context of the novel and in an afterward Note by the author. If you want to read a true account of a Texas girl kidnapped by Indians–following a particularly brutal massacre–there are several books about Cynthia Parker, who gave birth to an Indian son, Quanah, who later became the last and greatest chief of the Comanche. (I’ve read Empire of the Summer Moon by S.G. Gwynne.) Cynthia was miserable after her rescue. Eventually, weakened by refusing to eat, she died of influenza while still in her 40s. Today Cynthia’s story is being replayed in a different way: ISIS and Boco Haram soldiers taking girls as brides and/or by force. When rescued, it seems the majority of them don’t wish to go back.
Speaking of war, News of the World made me think about that, too. Captain Kidd has fought in two wars (the War of 1812) and the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and lived through a third, the Civil War (1861-65). How fortunate, I thought, that times for me have been different. And yet the U.S. has waged war throughout the course of my life so far. I was a baby/kid during the Vietnam War, and I watched from afar as the first President Bush sent troops into Kuwait to drive out the Iraqi forces. But then the Terror War hit home on 9/11, and we’ve been at war ever since. Against Iraq, against Al-Quaeda, against ISIS. No matter how civilized we become, war seems to be part of the human condition. What’s wrong with this narrative?