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Review: “News Of The World” by Paulette Jiles

In News Of The World, Captain Kidd, an elderly ex-printer, ekes out a living in 1870 Texas by drifting along the frontier on horseback from tiny town to tiny town, where he gives readings from newspapers of current events to the unlettered and curious for a dime apiece. Kidd is a wonderful character, believable and realistic even with his colorful and distinctive past. He’s an interesting combination of failings and strengths, ornery, well preserved for his time and day although aware of his growing weakness, with a natural authority derived from his age, strong voice, and strength of personality.

A Kiowa captive, Johanna, enters Kidd’s rather aimless life, rescued from captivity for a few blankets, but still completely acculturated in Native ways and utterly resistant to returning to what remains of her German family, her parents having been massacred in a raid. Given the princely sum of fifty dollars in gold (an almost unimaginable amount in those cash starved times), Kidd reluctantly agrees to convey Johanna back to her family in the Texas Hill Country. Their odyssey over rough,¬† bandit haunted roads is fascinating. Jiles skillfully allows the rapport to slowly build up between Kidd and Johanna. As they develop a close, familial bond through many misadventures and moments of extreme danger, the reader comes to empathize deeply with them and care about their fates. I freely admit I was reluctant to finish the book for fear they would come to a bad, unhappy end. I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but I found the novel’s conclusion¬† very satisfying emotionally and literarily.

This is not just that rare, modern thing, a good Western; it’s also a beautiful novel purely in terms of form. Jiles writes like a dream. With great economy, she evokes Texas shortly after the Civil War, with its poverty, violence, racism, and most of all the stark juxtaposition between encroaching Anglo civilization and the still vast, savage frontier. News seems to be a big success, both critically and commercially. The book deserves all of it. A film will probably be made based on the book’s success.¬† Captain Kidd seems to have been written specifically with Jeff Bridges in mind and this is the sort of part he could play in his sleep. I hope the film is a big success and leads to a Western movie renaissance, but wretched old fools like me always hope for things like that. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Westerns, Texas history, but most of all to anyone who enjoys a fine, heartfelt story about two wonderful people and their love for each other in a strange, exotic land during a desperate, evil time.

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