News of the World, by Paulette Jiles


News of the WorldWhy this book: I’d heard good things about it, and proposed it to one of my reading groups. We were looking for something of quality, but short. This fit the bill – only a bit over 200 pages.

Summary in 3 Sentences: In 1870, an older man (72 yrs old) is making his living reading articles from newspapers to townspeople in Texas when he agrees to return a 10 year old girl who had been captured by Kiowa Indians several years earlier to her family  She resisted this effort, didn’t want to return to white culture and he really didn’t want to take her the 400+miles from North Texas to the San Antonio region, thru country still subject to attacks by bandits, and hostile Comanche and Kiowa Indians. The story is about their adventures and  evolving friendship through the tribulations of making this trip together.

My impressions:  I enjoyed reading this book – it was short, a simple but nicely done story, and provided a fascinating look at the almost anarchic conditions in post Civil War Texas.  The evolving relationship between the older man and young girl was predictable but HOW it evolved and the challenges they faced together that brought them together made the story.

After being returned to white culture after only 4 years with the Kiowa, the young girl Johanna was unwilling to return to white culture, or give up her Kiowa way of living. But slowly she did – in large part due to the patience and sensitive  manner in which our protagonist – The Captain (the title from his service in the Confederate Army) – slowly and with great respect eased her into the white way of living.  His patience was often in contrast with the attitudes of more strident people he met along the way on their journey south, who wanted to impose white standards by force onto the young girl.

The context of the book is fascinating. The story takes place in unreconstructed Texas, where small townships sought to build stable civilized lives for themselves, while surrounded by countryside controlled by Indians, bandits, and occasionally, the occupying army of the United States.  As the story unfolds, we experience the anxiety and vulnerability of an older man and a young girl traveling in a wagon on roads through these ungoverned and dangerous areas to get from town to town.  They confront and must deal with a myriad of potentially life threatening challenges. When they did reach the towns, we get glimpses of life in the small and somewhat isolated settlements that existed in the great stretches of land between North and South Texas.

There are only two characters who we get to know in this book:  We get to know The Captain best, as we are inside his head as he worries  making enough money to survive, about surviving the hazards of being vulnerable in dangerous territory, taking care of the details of the trip, and taking care of the girl.  Johanna we observe from the outside. She is a mystery – to him and to us – since she has fully assumed the Kiowa mindset and is wary of all things from the white culture. And while she is in some ways very independent, courageous and resourceful, in other ways, she is still a scared, lonely 10 year old girl.  We see both sides of her. The other characters in the book show up, play their roles and disappear.

The Captain is indeed an interesting character.  As a very young man, he had been active in the Seminole wars in Florida, then made a living as a printer and raised a family. His life was disrupted by the death of his wife and then the Civil War, in which he fought for the South.  As the story begins, his daughters were married and living in Georgia, trying to survive in the reconstruction South, while he made a meager living traveling from town to town informing and entertaining isolated people by reading newspapers that were weeks and months old that he had picked up on his occasional visits to larger towns.  People paid a dime to spend an evening listening to him read articles he selected from various newspapers he carried with him.  He selected articles for each group,  based on his understanding of the interests, prejudices,  and mindsets of the people in the town he was visiting. He is a cross between an educator, a news anchor, and entertaining speaker.  Eventually on his way south to deliver Johanna to her relatives, she learns to help him by sitting at the door and collecting dimes from those who come to spend an evening having their horizons broadened while they are entertained.

In the afterward, Paulette Jiles tells us that the main character is based on a real figure who is the ancestor of a friend of hers.  And she shares that most children who were taken hostage by American Indians did NOT want to return to white civilization – even if they only lived with the Indians for a year.  There was something in the sense of community,  culture, purpose, connection to nature that they did not want to leave.  Most people in white culture did not understand this; they saw it as a simple choice between primitive barbarity and and the pleasures of civilization.  Sebastian Junger explores this theme in his book Tribe (which I review here) in which he tries to explain the phenomenon of whites being drawn to the Indian tribal life by noting that the organization and structure of civilization have taken us away from our primal need for a tight sense of belonging within a smaller community.

I read this book immediately after reading A Gentleman in Moscow  and I enjoyed that both stories were built upon the moral development of an older man who reluctantly took on the care of a young girl who was separated from her parents.  In both books, the relationship served both the older man, and the younger girl well.  In each, our male protagonist provided kind, patient, and occasionally stern guidance, which was key to the development of the young girls. And serving as a mentor/father figure provided a sense of purpose and focus for the wisdom of the older men.  The young girls inspired the older men with their energy, creativity, focus and ambition, and with the strength and power of their femininity.  The writing style of A Gentleman in Moscow was elaborate and descriptive, reflecting the refinements of the educated class in Europe of the late 19th, early 20th century.  The writing  style of News of the World is simple and sparse, reflecting the hard and austere life styles of the people in the story and the environment in which they lived.


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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1 Response to News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

  1. Pingback: Book Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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