News of the World: Why Reading the News is Brave

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I went on a book requesting spree at the end of the year when the ‘best of’ lists came out and then promptly forgot what I had requested. As a consequence I get near weekly notifications from the library that such-and-such book is waiting for me. And each time I swear I’ve never heard of the book. But off I go and pick it up and begin to read – confident in late 2016 Erin who must have had some inkling that this unknown novel was of some worth. 

2016 Erin nailed it. (Okay, the National Book Award selection committee nailed it, but whatever). Paulette Jiles’ News of the World is small. I mean that literally – the book is short in length (and my edition was also oddly short in height). And of course I mean that it takes a narrow focus and in so doing manages to offer a story that is at once unique and evocative of a broader whole.

Set in 1870s Texas  we follow a retired military man, Captain Kidd, as he attempts to return a once-captured-now-identifies-as-Kiowa ten-year old girl, Johanna, to her white relations many (many, many) miles away. Captain Kidd’s retirement job (because apparently the 1870s lacked for retirement savings) is to read the ‘news of the world’: travelling from town to town, he books a public space and for a 10 cent price reads newspapers from across the country and the world (this reader thrilled when he mentioned a paper from the newly established Dominion of Canada). I’ll admit I found the historical detail of this job endearing and altogether other-worldly: what a compelling way to capture the relationship among geography, nationalism and current events (*cough* Benedict Anderson). Reading this novel right now as we fixate on the idea of a bifurcated nationalism made possible by partisan news sources and insular, self-sustaining (self-absorbed) communities – the notion that we actively build community by sitting in one room to hear collective stories is at once fantastic (in the sense of removed from reality) and nostalgic in its appeal. Kidd’s job also serves to bring to the fore the wider questions that contextualize their particular story: changes in voting laws following the Civil War that allow for all men to vote, the economic and political consequences following the end of the War (a ban on side arms, for instance), and, of course, the continued conflict between settlers and the indigenous peoples that catalyzes the plot with the capture and then recapture of Johanna.

These scenes of reading the news (and creating the nation) pepper the narrative and stand in contrast to the classic adventure plot that sees Kidd and Johanna traipsing from one campsite and one conflict to the next. Battling man (there’s a riveting duel scene) and nature (and a white knuckle river crossing), we witness their journey as we do all great adventure stories: one that is more about the development of their relationship than it is about getting to where they need to be. Plus descriptions of horses and ponies.

For a novel so full of dirt and grit I’m surprised to find myself wanting to describe it as quaint and lovely. But that’s how I want to capture it and you’re stuck with my description until you read it yourself. And I do recommend it. I’m not convinced it will shatter your world, but it offers up a reminder of the way History and Big Events and Change are experienced and enacted on the smallest of scales.

 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, National Book Award, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

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