Author: Paulette Jiles
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: April 2018
In the years after the Civil War, the state of Texas was still defining itself, split as it was amongst settled towns, outlaw stretches of road, contentious local politics, and a good chunk of open country that made up the wild west. There were “people now being called ‘cowboys,’ an occupational specialty that moved into place as the buffalo were shot in their millions.” The world was changing fast, and although newspapers were printed and distributed to the corners that could afford them, news still traveled slow.
In this niche lives the Captain, an aging man whose wife passed away long ago, and who got his moniker from serving in battles as a young man. His true passion is the printed page, and now he travels from town to town reading the news to those willing to gather and drop their coins into a paint can. He started with lofty aims:
If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five.
At his advanced stage of life, the role has become simply his job, although he still takes it seriously, dressing nicely and speaking with authority so as to keep the crowd entertained and also calm. He tries hard to avoid giving news of local politics. Instead:
He would give them a few paragraphs of hard news and then read of dreamlike places far removed. This was the arrangement of all his readings. It worked. … He read quickly, flipping newsprint, read of far places and frozen climes, of reports of revolution in Chile, trying to bring them distant magic that was not only marvelous but true.
The Captain’s travels are complicated because of his traveling companion, Johanna. She was raised with the Kiowa people and recently reclaimed by whites, and the Captain has taken on the charge of bringing her back to her blood relatives, although her parents were killed when she was taken captive at a young age. The Captain shoulders the burden reluctantly, not knowing if the girl’s destination is the right place for her. The girl (who calls herself “Cho-henna” in her clipped English, and refers to him as the “Kep-dun”) is firmly entrenched in her Kiowa ways and wants nothing of a settled life. When she warms up to the Captain she finds that life on the road suits her, but she too worries about where the road ends.
Paulette Jiles’ writing is both straightforward and lyrical, swerving between rough and touching. She eschews punctuation around conversation (think Cormac McCarthy) in an effort to transport the reader to a time of simpler print, perhaps. The duo’s journey south through Texas is precarious and often downright dangerous—a mid-point climax involves a shootout where you can smell the sulfur, and culminates in a supremely clever use of weaponry (the situation makes literal the idea of working for money so that you can stay alive). While the Captain is portrayed as a thoughtful soul throughout the story, he still has survival skills and enough energy to defend a loved one. And satisfactorily for the reader, we can root for the demise of their particular enemy, because after all, “some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.”
News of the World is many things: a Western, a story of the road, a snapshot in time, an adventure story, an examination of culture clash, a tale of growing old and the pains of remembering. It makes you fascinated and fearful of the dusty Texas landscape, and like a listener at the Captain’s readings, puts you in mind of a distant magic from far places.