Having spent some time in the Texas Hill Country west of San Antonio, I’ve heard a few of the stories about the battles between bands of the Comanches and Kiowas and the Spanish, Anglo and immigrant settlers in the 1860s and 1870s. The stories are gruesome and harrowing, and neither side had a lock on viciousness and terror.
In some cases, the Indians would take kidnapped women and children back to their tribes. (If you’ve seen the 1990 Kevin Costner movie “Dances with Wolves,” actress Mary McDonnell plays a woman who was kidnapped as a child and raised as a member of the Indian tribe.) Some of those women and children were rescued or traded to U.S. authorities, and returned (if possible) to their families. But the children and adults who came back were often fundamentally changed from those who had been kidnapped.
The novel The News of the World by Paulette Jiles tells the story of one of these returns.
It is Texas in 1870, a post-Civil War society that has both Union troops still in occupation over former Confederates and attempting to deal with frontier Indian attacks.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is 72 years old. He’s experienced three wars – the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War. A former newspaper publisher in San Antonio but bankrupted by the collapse of the Confederacy, he ekes out a living by traveling from small town to small town in Texas, and reading newspapers – the news of the world – in meeting hall performances.
He is in Wichita Falls on the Oklahoma border when he’s asked to return a 10-year-old child who has been captive with the Kiowas. She had been taken when she was six, with her parents and sister murdered by a Comanche raiding party, and then swapped or given to a Kiowa tribe. She speaks no English, considers herself a Kiowa, and is terrified to find herself in an Anglo society. Kidd is asked to return her to an aunt and uncle who live near San Antonio. It will be a long and likely dangerous trip, especially when they reach the Hill Country.
As they travel, we learn more of Kidd’s history, and his hope that his two daughters and their families, living in Georgia, will eventually join him in Texas. He’s a widower who still mourns his wife. We learn more of the girl, Johanna Leonberger, but what we learn is her Kiowa understanding of the world. The two must learn to talk with each other, trust each other, and depend upon each other for their very lives.
Jiles is a writer and poet who’s published numerous works, including the novels Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, Stormy Weather, and Lighthouse Island; a memoir, Cousins; Blackwater; and Song to the Rising Sun. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a degree in Romance Languages and received the Canada Governor General’s Award for Poetry. She lives near San Antonio.
The News of the World is a relatively short novel (209 pages) but a big story. While it is a tale right out of Texas history, it is also a moving account of two people who couldn’t be more different having to cross cultures, ages, and personal histories to survive together.
Top photograph: A scene in San Antonio circa 1870.
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