News of the World was a 2016 National Book Award finalist. This historical novel has well developed characters, and is set in the early 1870s in the wild west of Texas. 71-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd takes up the mission to bring a 10-year-old girl, recently returned from capture by the Kiowa tribe, to her aunt and uncle in southern Texas.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has had a long and interesting life as a former soldier, printer and father of two grown daughters. He had been a 16-year-old soldier in the Battle of New Orleans, and much later, settling near San Antonio,Texas, had fought in the Spanish American War of 1848, and then for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Between the wars, he married into a prominent Mexican family and had raised two daughters. After the Civil War, he had to sell his printing shop to pay his debts.
Initially he is ambivalent about this mission,“I am 71 years old and tired!” However, he could not abandon the girl to a fate she did not deserve. As he and the girl, Johanna, travel the frontier country, the Captain reads from newspapers to entertain people in small towns, for which he earns a living. They face dangerous run-ins with unsavory and violent characters. One of them was a man who followed them from Wichita Falls and offered money for Johanna. “Blond girls will fetch a good price,” he said. So the Captain and Johanna set out in the dead of night on an alternate route, but get discovered. Down to his last bullets, Johanna tells him, “Kep-dun heah dimes for gun.” The dimes were collected from a recent newspaper reading. Just when Almay the pedophile and his two sidekicks were about to overrun them, Kidd loaded his 20-gauge shotgun with dimes in a cartridge shell and fired, killing Almay. Using the same method, he fired the dime shots again and peppered the two other men, turning their heads into a colander pattern.
As the result of having been captured and raised by the Kiowas when she was a young girl, Johanna felt and identified with the Kiowas’ way of life. To her, all animals except horses were food, and she had no concept of animals being personal property. For food, she knew how to wring the neck of a chicken, and even how to dig an egg out of a hen. In addition she did not know how to behave in the world of other people, specifically white people. In one instance, unclothed she jumped into a river to wash off, and totally offended a white woman, who screamed and yelled, rousing the Captain. He informed her that Johanna was a returned captive, and if the woman was truly a Christian, then she would try and find some changes of shoes and clothes for the youngster. The next day Johanna got three sets of clothes and undergarments, from the “bad water lady.”
Jiles’ written illustrations of the land and native plants are so graphic that readers will feel as if they are on the trail with Jefferson and Johanna: pecan trees, giant live oaks, carrizo cane, the Lampasas spring, robins flitting about, the song of a yellow oriole, and the painted buntings “ … in their outrageous colors.”
A book to which Jiles refers is The Captured by Scott Zesch, that is also about children returned to the white world from Native American captivity and how they adjusted, or were forever caught between two worlds. “All those captured as children were restless and hungry for some spiritual solace, abandoned by two cultures, dark shooting stars lost in the outer heavens.” The core of this vivid story is about what it means to be a family; the consequences of being uprooted; and some of the healing power of love and understanding.