It is that time of year when magazines and newspapers list the “Best Books of 2016.” One of the novels making an appearance is News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It is certainly on my personal list of favorites.
News of the World is set in Texas in the 1870’s. The story follows the adventures of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and a 10 year old girl. Johanna was abducted by Indians at the age of 6, has just been rescued and needs to be reunited with relatives. Capt. Kidd agrees to transport the girl from North Texas to the home of her aunt and uncle near San Antonio (Johanna’s parents were killed in the Indian raid). Johanna wants to stay with her Indian family. She is not happy about the upcoming reunion.
Captain Kidd, who is pushing 72, questions his decision to escort the girl home. “[ He ] worried about the very long journey ahead, about his ability to keep the girl from harm. He thought resentfully, I raised my girls. I already did that. But now it was different… because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered.”
As the two travel together, they begin to respect and love each other. . They become quite a team as they overcome the hardships and dangers of the long trip south. Along the route, Johanna even helps collect the dime entry fee Capt. Kidd charges at town gatherings to hear him read newspaper stories from around the world.
News of the World is a great story and I really appreciate a main character who is one of my peeps (that is, old). Capt. Kidd bends and hears “a light creaking of the spine” or sits and hears “the jointed sound as one vertebrae settled on another.” His hand looks “as bony and wrinkled as those of a catacomb mummy.”
Like me, Capt. Kidd can be cranky and short tempered. I appreciate his observations about being old like when he is dressing for one of his readings: “young people could get away with rough clothing but unless the elderly dressed with care they looked like homeless vagabonds…”
A veteran of many wars, the captain still suffers from nightmares and flashbacks from past battles. He awakens to the smell of cannon smoke from “those long years ago, almost thirty years. It would stay with him always as everything you ever did stayed with you, every horse you ever saddled, every morning when he awoke with Maria Luisa [his late wife] beside him, and every slap of the paten on fresh paper…and his captain dying under his hands, always there like a tangle of telegraph wire in the brains where no dispatch was ever lost, what an odd thing, an odd thing.”
The author of News of the World, Paulette Jiles, is 73, about the same age as Capt. Kidd. I am not sure a younger author could have been as successful in drawing a portrait of an aging hero.
Despite his advanced years, Captain Kidd is determined to deliver Johanna safely to her relatives: “he must not become incapacitated, he must not be killed” before they reach San Antonio.
The Captain and Johanna face some violent encounters on their trek. On one such occasion, their escape seems hopeless when they are pinned down by gunfire from three nasty hombres. Thanks to some pretty creative thinking by Johanna and the aim of Captain Kidd, they survive.
The two eventually arrive at the home of Johanna’s aunt and uncle where the story takes an interesting twist, which I will not reveal.
I have read other selections on 2016 Best Book lists, notably Swing Time by Zadie Smith and Commonwealth by Ann Pratchett. These books are certainly well-written but I do not enjoy lead characters who are self-absorbed and mean spirited. Give me likeable characters like Captain Kidd and Johanna and a compelling story line, and I am hooked. That is why News of the World tops my personal list of best reads of 2016.