Spotlight on Paulette Jiles | LibraryReads Author, October 15, 2016

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Photo by Jill Gann

In Paulette Jiles’s luminous new novel, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels the rough roads of northern Texas after the Civil War reading newspapers to paying crowds. At a time of intense political conflict that recalls our own, he avoids local concerns and reads about Arctic discovery, riots in the Punjab, and the smuggling of Angora goats. As Jiles explained in a phone interview with LJ, “He wanted to move people into the wonderful world of imagination we all need, which he brings to people under the guise of news.” Readers are thus caught in a double entendre, says Jiles, reading an imaginative work titled News of the World about a man reading news as an act of ­imagination.

Yet never in Captain Kidd’s wildest imagination could he have foreseen the task set him in this novel: to return rescued ten-year-old Johanna, raised among the Kiowa after they killed her parents, to relatives 400 miles south in San Antonio. Johanna is stubbornly resistant to being brought to a home she doesn’t remember, and initially she and the captain can’t even communicate, as she was born into a German-speaking family and now knows only Kiowa. The captain soon realizes that they have Plains Indian sign language in common, and as he teaches her English they create a bond that makes this ultimately a story about love.

newsoftheworld-jpg101716Johanna needs all the love she can get, for as the captain’s friend Doris says, she’s been twice captured, rudely pulled from her murdered parents, then dragged back into the white world after she has found a happy home with the Kiowa. Doris, herself Irish, compares Johanna to the children of the Great Famine, who were sent away after their parents’ deaths and returned “unfinished. They are forever falling.” As Jiles clarifies of captivity narratives, when younger children were captured, they adjusted better to Native culture than older ones, but in general those who were returned never adjusted to white culture. ­Johanna is caught between two worlds and will remain there, a telling comment on the limits to human adaptability.

Jiles depicts a rough-and-bloody world where society risks collapse at any moment and war has been the norm for generations. “With no police presence, society at that time depended on a code of honor to function,” says Jiles, explaining the crusty captain’s strict moral probity. Yet even with the trials faced by Kidd and Johanna, including a nasty trio intent on capturing Johanna once again for their own nefarious purposes, Jiles doesn’t offer a brutal and brutally told tale.

“I hate to say this, but it seems to be the fashion to write grimy, depressing narratives,” observes Jiles. “It presses in as if it were a requirement, as if that were reporting on the real world.” But, says Jiles, fiction always has an uneasy relationship to the world at large, and as an author she had choices to make. Though she reckons with evil in her novel, she chose not to paint things black, instead bringing out persuasive instances of selfless behavior that prove to be the narrative’s strength.

In the end, it’s heartening to learn that Captain Kidd’s stupendous task of reading the news is grounded in reality. “After a ride with friends, we were sitting around talking,” explains Jiles, “and one mentioned that his great-great-grandfather went around north Texas reading from the newspapers and charging people 10¢.” As the character he inspired, Captain Kidd appeared briefly in Jiles’s The Color of Lightning, declaiming the new 15th Amendment. “He stayed with me,” says Jiles, “and I thought he deserved a book all his own.” And what a book he got.—Barbara Hoffert

library_reads_logo_website100314Created by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. See the October 2016 list at ow.ly/InzT304qHES and contact libraryreads.org/for-library-staff/ to make your own nomination.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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