When I saw Paulette Jiles had a new book I jumped at the chance to read it. Her novels often explore historical periods but with a poetic bent. Her books are unlike any others I have read. She does a great deal of research, and then dramatizes conflicts among people in the era about which she is reporting with an unstinting yet lyrical eye. She also employs a distinctive style of showing dialogue without any distinguishing punctuation, which makes it more a part of the narrative flow.
This novel takes place in Texas in 1870. In 1870, the population of Texas was 818,579 (ten years later, it would almost double, approaching 1.5 million people). Oddly, there was something of a line at the 100th meridian between the Texas with newspapers and the Texas without newspapers. [The 100th meridian is approximately down the vertical middle of the United States and so also down the middle of Texas.] John Pfak, of the wonderful eponymous online bookstore specializing in unusual, rare and unique material in the sciences and the history of science, demonstrated this from a map he found, shown below, in an 1882 book entitled History and Present Condition of the Newspaper and Periodical Press of the United States:
The main protagonist of this novel is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, 71, who lived through three wars, and now travels around North Texas reading newspapers to any comers who pay a dime a piece to hear the news. Originally, he had a vague hope that by spreading “true knowledge” about the world, he might in some way help make the world a more peaceful place. By age 65, he gave up that illusion, but he knew he did add something to people’s lives: in that time without television or movies, “he took them away to far places and strange peoples. Into mythic forms of thought and the structures of fairy tales.”
The author shares much of what the Captain would have read to his audiences, from the search for Ancient Troy in Turkey to the attempts of explorers to get to the North Pole, to tales of shipwrecks, inventions, and natural disasters. He tried to avoid news about anything that might start fighting among the listeners, especially in the volatile political atmosphere of the post-Civil War South. [From May 1865 to March 1870 before Texas was readmitted to the Union, there was an occupying army from the North in Texas. Even so, in the state elections in this time, many from the prewar power structure were reinstated, and got into bitter conflict with Unionists.]
On one such trip through northern Texas doing readings, the Captain is asked to deliver a ten-year-old girl named Johanna back to her relatives near San Antonio. She had been abducted by the Kiowa when she was six, and a man named Britt Johnson was hired to retrieve her. But while Johnson managed to get Johanna from the tribe, he did not want to take the risk of traveling through Texas with a small blond girl because he was black; the Captain would be trusted because not only was he white, but he was an old man.
The Captain agreed, and so began the odyssey of the Captain and Johanna across Texas, with the Captain doing occasional newspaper readings to pay for the trip. The two of them faced a number of perils, because in 1870, lawlessness was rampant in much of Texas, with bands of brigands roaming through the state.
There was also a constant threat of raids by tribes of Native Americans, in particular the Comanches. The 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek established a reservation for the Comanches, Kiowas, and Kiowa Apaches, but the southwestern Natives were not interested in staying penned in on reservations. [The U.S. Army fought them and their cultural values and beliefs, and by 1875 the Comanche population had been reduced to just over 1,500.]
Johanna, sullen and sad and quiet at first, comes to understand that the Captain is on her side and wants to protect her from all the various dangers. She begins to call him Kontah, the Kiowa name for grandfather. But Johanna in some ways was not like other captives. As the author explains in an Afterword about child captives from the Texas frontier:
“They apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families, even when they had been with their Indian families for less than a year.”
[It is possible Jiles was inspired by the story of a 9-year-old pioneer girl named Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped during a Comanche raid in North Texas in 1836. She became a ward of the chief and eventually, a full member of the Comanches. She married a highly respected Comanche chief and gave birth to three children, including Quanah Parker — who would grow up to become the last and greatest Comanche leader.]
Indeed, Johanna often thinks about her life before, when her people “followed water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps.”
The Captain knew that Johanna would never again be like other white people, and he found himself adopting Johanna’s worldview rather than trying to force her to conform to non-Native ways. Neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts, he learns from her, are what matters. Rather, “the baseline of human life was courage.”
Courage and character are consistent themes in Jiles’ books. Here, both come into play not only during their trip to San Antonio, but also when the time comes for the Captain to deliver Johanna to her aunt and uncle.
Evaluation: Jiles is an adept writer who improbably describes scenes of violence and destruction with a poetic eloquence that somehow adds to the horror rather than “beautifying” it. But she also lends her poetic hand to the pain, naivety, and hope of love, resulting in an unforgettable stories. This short novel is no exception.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016