It’s been a great revelation to me that I love a good Western novel: The Big Sky, Lonesome Dove, The Son, Ride the Wind, Angle of Repose — dang howdy! And Paulette Jiles’s News of the World has a terrific premise for a Western.
Set in the 1870s, an elderly man agrees, for fifty dollars in gold, to escort an eleven-year-old former Kiowa captive girl back to her relatives in Texas, a long and dangerous journey of about 400 miles by horse and wagon. The man, Captain Kidd, is in his early 70s and makes his living by driving from town-to-town and reading the news, in town hall-like settings, to the locals who pay a dime each for the privilege. He’s a widow, father of two grown daughters, and a Civil War veteran, so he’s got both the parenting skills and mettle for the task. The girl, Johannah (her forgotten German name) or Cicada (her Kiowa name), has spent four years with the tribe after being captured in a raid where her parents were killed. She has lost the language and customs of her birth parents and has become Kiowa in every way. Understandably, she is frightened and defiant, but Captain Kidd is a patient and kind man who not only understands and tolerates her non-European ways, but also empathizes with her situation. As the journey progresses, they develop a bond.
The first two-thirds of this book were so good that I got the “book tingles” (not my original — lifted from Simon at Savidge Reads) — immersive period detail and great pacing. This continued up to a terrific gunfight/ambush scene when the old Captain and Johannah hold off a white sex slave trader and two Indian scouts. It’s one of those chapters you read while hardly breathing.
But then the energy and direction of the story slowly come apart. Once Johannah is delivered to her relatives with predictably miserable results, it seems like Jiles was unsure how to resolve things. Her solution is largely expository which really feels like a let down after you’ve been through that dusty, sweaty adrenaline-rush of a gunfight. And most awkwardly, there is a sense that Jiles is trying to fit in all the interesting bits of research that she’s been thus far unable to use. In particular, there is a subplot about the Captain’s daughters and their claim to land through their Spanish mother. It could’ve been really interesting and added a whole other aspect of complexity to the story — much like Philip Meyer’s did in The Son — but it was undeveloped. Maybe I just wanted MORE.
Speaking of more, does anybody have suggestions for a good Western? Or a story set in the West? I need more dust and prairie, mountains and sky, horses, sweat, campfires, gunfights, and adventure.