News of the World a Western for Adults

Paulette Jiles
William Morrow, 209 pages

One of the virtues of being a voracious reader is that you occasionally stumble onto something you'd not normally consume and find it a delectable treat. That was exactly my experience with News of the World.

It's a (sort of) Western, a genre I normally avoid—mostly because too many of them are Zane Grey wannabes and I read Grey (and Wister, L'Amour, etc.) when I was a kid. News of the World is different in content and sensibility. It takes place in Texas five years after the end of the Civil War—the fighting part of that is. Texas was quite different in the 1870s than it is today. Places like Dallas, Kerrville, Llano, and San Antonio were cowtowns—and rough ones to boot. Fort Worth was still a fort, a needed one as Kiowa, Comanche, and several other tribes roamed freely and raided frequently. Shall we say, though, that it was a toss-up as to who was more "savage," the unconquered Natives or the floozies, con artists, and drunken, gun-toting white lowlifes that populated not-yet "civilized" towns.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is the unconventional hero of News of the World. At age 71, Kidd is both bone- and world-weary. As a boy he witnessed the War of 1812, and he participated in Mexican and Civil conflicts. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but with little enthusiasm. He is sick of violence and has little time for Reconstruction politics and unbowed racists and Democrats lamenting the end of slavery. His priorities are more immediate. Kidd misses his late wife, a rich Mexican woman whose passing left him with estranged adult children and no bankroll. Kidd ekes out a modest living as a reader; for tens cents a head, audiences listen to Kidd read from papers from around the nation and the world. Call it the 19th century's approximation of the World Wide Web. Even if you were literate, most people in rural Texas would have never laid hands or eyes on papers from back East or abroad.

Against his better judgment, Kidd agrees to take on a daunting task: a 400-mile ride from Wichita Falls to Castroville, Texas, to return ten-year-old Johanna Leonberger to her surviving relatives. Don't imagine a Rooster Cogburn type of story; the Kiowa killed Johanna's German immigrant parents when she was six, and she was raised Kiowa. Johanna has forgotten both German and English, has adopted Indian culture, and her Kiowa family is the only one she remembers. Kidd doubts he can complete the journey, but he needs the $50 (in gold) reward.

That trek makes Jiles' story much better than your average paint-by-the-numbers Western. To be sure, there is plenty of treachery, action, and danger, but the tale is really about the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Captain Kidd is genteel and erudite like his piratical namesake, but how does one communicate across language, culture, and trust barriers? Jiles populates the back scenery with assorted ex-slaves, desperadoes, legitimate do-gooders, and some whose quality of mercy is strained. Jiles also lets us inside Johanna's Kiowa brain to give us three under-served points of view: that of a female, a child, and a Native American. She brings it all home in a crisp 209 pages that you'll turn faster than the Captain flips newspaper pages. Give this one a chance, even if you can't imagine you'd enjoy a Western.

Rob Weir

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