When my wonderful friend Ellen, who took me under her wing many moons ago during my time living in New York, recommends a book to me, I never hesitate to read it. She introduced me to Marilynne Robinson, which is a gift I’ll forever be grateful for, as well as countless other authors and novels I’ve loved. Even if initially I’m not sure, I know she won’t be wrong, and so when she recommended News of the World a couple of months ago, I headed straight to Foyles and picked up a copy. I was storing it up until a time when I could immerse myself in it, and last week I had a long train journey that proved to be the perfect opportunity. A slight volume, it holds a story that transported me utterly to the lawless, dust-baked valleys of post civil war Texas, where black-clad men toting pistols haunt the lonely tracks between rawly constructed pioneer towns and communities live in fear of raids from Native American tribes. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an old man, who, having lost his wife and properties in San Antonio, is now living a rootless, itinerant existence that brings him a kind of happiness. He travels around Northern Texas, moving between its rough-and-ready towns to entertain locals with live readings from the newspapers, which earns him enough money to stay fed and clothed. After a life spent fighting for his country and working hard to support his family in his printing business, he is enjoying the sense of having no responsibilities, and only himself to please. However, when he bumps into an old friend who offers him 50 dollars to take a young girl who has been kidnapped by the Kiowa, a Native American tribe, back to her family several hundred miles away in San Antonio, he reluctantly accepts out of a sense of obligation. Little does he know that this encounter will go on to transform his life.
Johanna Leonberger was kidnapped by the Kiowa after a raid on her family’s homestead four years earlier. Her parents and sister were brutally murdered, and she was taken as a prize, being brought up as a member of the tribe by a new mother. Now ten, she only speaks the language of the Kiowa, and is a wild thing, terrified by the civilised world she has been brought back to. Unable to communicate and longing to be back with the only family she remembers, she initially resists Captain Kidd’s kindness and repeatedly tries to run away. Kidd, with a dangerous road to travel along lonely, lawless territory, soon wishes he’d never agreed to taking the child. Danger is lurking everywhere, and they are set upon frequently throughout their trip, with their lives often at risk. Johanna proves to be a fearless little fighter, with plenty of pluckiness and skill picked up from the Kiowa. Captain Kidd, calm and resourceful, and fiercely protective of Johanna, finds a new lease of life in this constant state of battle. Gradually the two grow to love one another as they find a way to communicate across the divide of years and experience, and both will arrive in San Antonio very different people, with a bond that will prove impossible to break.
This is a truly beautiful story that slowly, tenderly and insightfully unravels the stories of Captain Kidd and Johanna to reveal two damaged and lonely people who yet have a deep, innate capacity for love. The rendering of Texas at this unstable time in American history is so vivid and colourful, and I could almost smell the horses and gunpowder as images of streets filled with clapboard saloons and boarding houses, and orange, cactus-studded valleys came alive in my head. There is plenty of action and excitement, but at its heart this is a story of people, and how wonderfully courageous, loving and adventurous we can be if we allow ourselves to live ungoverned by fear. It’s beautifully, sensitively written, and I loved every moment. I can’t wait to read more of Jiles’ work, and even if you think the subject matter or setting isn’t your sort of thing, I really encourage you to give News of the World a try. You won’t regret it!