Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “News of the World”

Book News: News of the World is among ten titles on this year’s National Book Award Longlist: Fiction. The five finalists will be named on October 13th, with the winner announced on November 16th. So fingers crossed for News! (Of course, I’m biased–as a Texas girl, I can’t help rooting for a Texas-centric tale to win.)

Upon first reading the synopsis of Paulette Jiles’ News, I formed a prediction regarding what the novel might be like, as readers often do when meeting a book. The story of an ex-Army Captain transporting a young girl rescued from Indian captivity across 19th Century Texas, the novel would be a Western-style action/adventure–the literary equivalent of a John Wayne film.

But News took me by surprise. Instead, it read more like an elegantly-penned travelogue, a slice out of Texas life at that historical moment. That’s not to say the novel didn’t have a pulse-pounding moment or two. The primary shoot-out scene was tensely executed with the added bonus of a dash of dark humor upon its conclusion. But the story was about the characters–resilient ex-captive Johanna and noble Captain Kidd–and the landscape and culture of post-Civil War Texas.

Depending on your reading tastes, such an assessment may be enough to make you look elsewhere. But for those inclined toward literary and/or historical fiction, this zippy little read (just 224 pages) is worth your time. Where the book is lean in plotting, it is rich in writing craft.

It falls into that category of books–narrowly populated–constructed with beauty and precision. It is here that Jiles’ credentials as a poet most shine. The novel is full of gorgeously-rendered images, lovely sketches drawn as the Captain and Johanna journey across varying  Texas landscapes. With many writers, this focus on aesthetics could result in cumbersome, long-winded prose. But in Jiles’ hands, each word is carefully selected, with the excess strained away.

Her characters, too, are deftly drawn. The Captain is at once something of a scholar-gentlemen (he makes his living reading newspapers in isolated towns throughout Texas) and a scrappy frontiersman. He is kind and pacific when he can be, but equally cantankerous as necessary. Jiles handily avoids making the Captain a caricature, leaning too far one way or the other.

Johanna, too, is a vivid presence. She is what we would today term a third-culture kid–a child influenced by two cultures, belonging fully to neither. Caucasian in appearance and earliest nurturance, Johanna’s four years of Indian captivity have made her Kiowa in spirit. It is with them that she identifies, for them that she longs. Even linguistically, she chooses her captors as her people. When she first meets the Captain, she speaks only Kiowa, having forsaken the English she once knew. The reader witnesses her poignant attempts to balance between Native and “civilized” society.

Wisely, Jiles avoids resolving this struggle too neatly. Even into adulthood, Johanna bears the burden of being partially Caucasian and Kiowa, but fully neither. The novel is thus evocative, rather than saccharine. Jiles also makes no attempt to reconcile the seemingly-paradoxical fact that Johanna loves the Kiowa despite witnessing their violent murder of her family. In the mode of realist writer, Jiles doesn’t rationalize human psychology–she simply communicates a pattern in Indian-captured children as uncovered by her research.

Yet, despite the novel’s liberal dose of the bittersweet, there is happiness, too–certainly enough to satisfy the reader. So for those passionate about historical or Texas-based fiction, or looking for a quick-but-cultivated read, I’d call this a solid selection.

*Received Advanced Readers Copy for the purposes of review

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