What is a family? For most people, it’s the one they’re born into. Others cobble one together from the people they meet, based on their needs for affection, support, and companionship. Yet others don’t really have a choice about the people who become their family. In News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, Johanna has all three kinds of family.
News of the World is narrated by Captain Jefferson Kidd (who is based on an actual Captain Kydd). In 1870, Kidd is an old man. He’s a veteran of two wars and a former printer. He makes his living traveling around Texas reading articles from newspapers to people for a dime. After one reading, Kidd runs into an acquaintance who talks him into escorting 10-year-old Johanna home to her relatives in Bexar County. Johanna’s immediate family were killed by Kiowa and she spent four years with the tribe. She has completely assimilated as a Kiowa; the ways of the whites mystify and frighten her.
The plot of this book is simple. Kidd and Johanna travel south to Bexar County. But the story itself is more complex. Kidd’s kindness helps Johanna cope with the strange demands of the whites—wearing shoes and too many layers of clothing, using eating utensils, not bathing in public in her camisole. He helps her learn English and recover the German of her childhood. A bond grows between them, forged in blood when they save each other’s lives. The bond is so strong, I had to wonder how Kidd would ever give her up.
While I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of movies like The Searchers and real-life stories like Olive Oatman’s. Johanna had become, in her mind, completely Kiowa. When the tribe gave her up (under duress, of course), it was an inexplicable betrayal to her. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to understand the contempt and sheer hatred so many white pioneers felt for the Native American tribes. Everyone in News of the World except Kidd thinks Johanna is exceptionally lucky to be “rescued” from the Kiowa. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Jiles reports that many scholars and contemporary accounts of children abducted by tribes were highly adaptable in forging a new identity. Once these children reached a certain age, the ability to adapt waned and often left these child caught between their tribal identities and their white identities.
News of the World gives its readers many opportunities to contemplate what a family is and what its members owe to each other. Family, in this book, becomes more elastic than the dictionary definition would allow for. Even though it is short, at 224 pages, it is a deeply affecting novel. The only thing that keeps me from giving it my highest recommendation is that the dialog isn’t marked.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 29 March 2016.