Funny how what we sometimes read is based on serendipity rather than carefully thought out choices. After all, reading time is precious, especially with multifaceted activities whirling around in the modern world, all calling for our attention or participation. It’s one of the reasons I welcome the summer and returning to our boat in Connecticut for a long stay. No pressing commitments, no piano, and although there is work to be done on the boat, incomparable to “running” the house. Also, our dock is out of range of Wifi so even our Internet activity has to be cut back, television too as satellite is unreliable on a cloudy windy day. I welcome the change.
So I’ve been happily arranging my reading, lining up all the novels I hope to finish. Most are so-called “serious” ones, no sense listing them here. In fact, I had already started one, when our good friend, Nina, sent us an email with the subject “beautiful writing,” starting out her message “.... It was March 5 and cold, his breath fumed and his old muffler was dank with the steam. Above and behind them the Dipper turned on its great handle as if to pour night itself out onto the dreaming continent and each of its seven stars gleamed from between the fitful passing clouds.....” This is a passage from the book I’m reading and loving): News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It’s a story of a printer turned newsreader in the 1870's and what happens to him.
So I sagely replied, Yes, Beautiful. Sounds like the kind of book one of us can knock off quickly. But I have so many on my reading take-off pad that I can't promise to get to it immediately, and if it's a library book, or promised to someone else, I'd feel guilty taking it.
It was a library book but my wife Ann agreed to read it, which she did in a few days, enthusiastically endorsing it as well and insisting I would love it too. Meanwhile I was reading one of my “serious” novels and laboring. I declared (to myself), even if it’s serious it should be a joy to read so I decided to put it down (very unlike me) and give myself over to a novel which had all the earmarks of a great story, News of the World, and as there were still a few days left before the library return date, felt confident that I could knock off the 200 some odd pages.
How happy I am that I made that decision.
Jiles’ novel reminded me a little of Philipp Meyer’s, The Son, (although his is a novel written on a much grander scale), in that one of the main characters was captured by Indians and raised by them, while their parents were killed, all of this taking place in the post civil war territory of Texas. Each makes its points about man’s inhumanity to man and survival being a paramount issue. However The Son is a sledgehammer of a novel while News of the World is delicate and uplifting.
Here’s another comparative observation to other novels I’ve read, and this might seem to be strange, yet there is an interesting connection. Jiles dispenses with the use of quotation marks so the author’s narrative and the characters’ dialogue is not readily distinguishable. This technique, while off putting at first, works very well as you get used to it and I find that it makes great story telling even more energizing.
Two such novels, reviewed in this blog which also use that technique are Dave Eggers’ Hologram for a King and Louis Begley’s About Schmidt. And as with Jiles’ novel, both are fast reads, hard to put down. I find them almost reading like screenplays, easily adaptable to that medium. The novels I mentioned were made into films. News of the World would be a perfect film as well I thought. Therefore I googled the title and “film” and found that Tom Hanks had just signed up for a movie version!
Perfect casting as “The Captain” and ideally suited to Hanks’ sensibilities and temperament. He’s a little young for the part, the main character being closer to my age (nearing mid-70s than Hanks at 60), but just perfect otherwise. Ironically he starred in the movie version of Hologram for a King so maybe he has a penchant for story narratives and dialogue without quotation marks as well!
The Son also made its way to film, a recent 10 part TV miniseries. Great stories about the West and the real back story of the unimaginable cruelties and hardships have power.
I found News of the World a metaphor for today’s developing dystopian world. There was extreme political dissention in Texas during post Civil War years. Edmund Davis, considered a radical, was elected governor against Andrew Jackson Hamilton, a Unionist Democrat. Davis supported the rights of freed slaves and wanted Texas to be divided into a number of Republican-controlled states. This leitmotif works in the background of the novel and the political polarity resembles today. You were either pro Davis or anti-Davis.
It was also a time of great fear, Mexicans being hunted and murdered, Indian wars continuing, and marauding bands of outlaws, lawlessness and violence, not exactly an excellent time for a 70 plus year old man to take a newly freed Indian captive on a 400 mile journey south through Texas.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is no ordinary man of the times, though. He’s been through two wars, including the war of 1812 but that experience is secondary to his nature. He’s a good man, trustworthy, honorable, and as an ex-printer he is interested in and makes his living from “the news of the world.” These attributes put him in a situation where he is inveigled to return a captive of the Kiowa tribe, a 10 year old white girl, captured when she was six, to her aunt and uncle some four hundred grueling and dangerous miles from Wichita Falls northwest of Dallas to Castroville, southwest of San Antonio.
He’s also not ordinary as he embraces information (a modern man!), believing that “If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and the world would be a more peaceful place.”
So the story begins when Britt Johnson, a free black man, asks Captain Kidd to deliver the child, who was left to him by a government agent, back to her family. After all she’s a white girl and if Johnson attempts the three plus week journey, there could be consequences. “You take her and the fifty dollar gold piece I was given to deliver her. Hard to find somebody to trust with this.” Thus the Captain was given the responsibility of delivering Johanna Leonberger under contract with a government agent (Johnson gives him papers to that effect) and as Kidd himself says: “I am a man of my word.”
He was a runner during the war of 1812. “He had good lungs and knew the country…covering ground at a long trot was meat and drink to him….Nothing pleased him more than to travel free and unencumbered, along, with a message in his hand, carrying information from one unit to another, unconcerned with its content, independent of what was written or ordered therein…A lifting, running joy. He felt like a thin banner streaming, printed with some real insignia with messages of great import entrusted to his care…He always recalled those two years with a kind of wonder. As when one is granted the life and the task for which one was meant. No matter how odd, no matter how out of the ordinary. When it came to an end he was not surprised. It was too good, too perfect to last.”
And since the Civil War he has been an itinerant news provider, going from town to town reading news articles at assemblages of people in the town for 10 cents apiece. But now he had to combine his living with the solemn oath of delivering the child safely,”in his mild and mindless way still roaming, still reading out the news of the world in the hope that it would do some good, but in the end he must carry a weapon in his belt and he had a child to protect and no printed story or tale would alter that.”
When he first sees Johanna he says “The child seems artificial as well as malign.”
She says (inaudible to them): “My name is Cicada. My father’s name is Turning Water. My mother’s name is Three Spotted. I want to go home.” She doesn’t speak these words though as “the Kiowa words in all their tonal music lived in her head like bees.”
Thus, the journey begins and here in the best interest of spoiler alerts, I’m deserting plot and delving into some of Jiles’ sparse writing and some of the themes that emerge.
The Captain is not only a man of honor, but a person of great sensitivity. In spite of the travails of trying to transport her, and the frustrations of trying to teach her some of the ways of the white world which she had entirely forgotten, his inherent humanity prevails: “He was suddenly almost overwhelmed with pity for her. Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing, surrounded by people of an unknown language and unknown culture, only ten years old, and now she could not even eat her food without have to use outlandish instruments….Her sufferings were beyond description.”
“He worried all up and down every street and with every tack he drove in. Worried about the very long journey ahead, about his ability to keep the girl from harm. He thought, resentfully, I raised my girls, I already did that. At the age he had attained with his life span short before him he had begun to look upon the human world with the indifference of a condemned man.” Oh do I identify with the last sentence of this quote!
He is a man who lives in the real world and his flight with Johanna brings these thoughts to the surface, “more than ever knowing in his fragile bones that it was the duty of men who aspired to the condition of humanity to protect children and kill for them….Human aggression and depravity still managed to astonish him….Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.”
Yet, as he turns 72 on the road, and is fending off threats to follow through on his promise and in the process gradually bonding with Johanna, he is “beyond belief “at his age, still traveling, alive, and thus “unaccountably happy.”
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”
I’ve quoted liberally in this overview, but it’s one of the advantages I can bring to a blog vs.the usual “review.” Such reviews can easily be found elsewhere. But I like to focus on the writing, and this is a beautiful novel and I was glad to put down my other reading to enjoy News of the World. I’ll look forward to Tom Hanks’ interpretation of it, an actor I admire. He will make a great Captain Kidd.