Stolen girl struggles to assimilate in Wild West-era ‘News of the World’

Poet turned novelist Paulette Jiles sets her fifth novel, “News of the World,” in post-Civil War Texas, where a grizzled veteran accepts an unusual assignment: Returning a child captured four years earlier by Indians to her surviving relatives in San Antonio.

When septuagenarian Capt. Jefferson Kidd first lays eyes on Johanna Leonberger in Wichita Falls, he sees a little German girl dressed in the “horse Indians” manner. She wears a deerskin shift, a necklace of beads and has “down puffs” and an eagle’s feather threaded into her blonde hair, “the color of maple syrup.” Her eyes are blue.

On the inside, she’s anything but German. “My name is Cicada. My father’s name is Turning Water. My mother’s name is Three Spotted. I want to go home,” she longs to say. “But they could not hear her because she had not spoken aloud. The Kiowa words in all their tonal music lived in her head like bees.”

Ten-year-old Johanna remembers nothing of her former life: She doesn’t “know the name Johanna from Deuteronomy.” But during their 400-mile trek across rugged, mostly militarized territory still reeling from its Confederate losses, she and the Captain will encounter all the customs, intolerance and violence of their times head on.

Jiles, best known for her Civil War-era novels “Enemy Women” and “The Color of Lightning,” once again skillfully blends history and fiction in an unsentimental prose style as clean and soaring as the Texas landscape, perfectly suited for her two shrewd, fiercely independent main characters.

“A man old not only in years but in wars,” Kidd’s military career began with the War of 1812; a promising printer’s business was cut short by “President Tyler’s war with Mexico.” Like Johanna, the Captain has left behind his former tribe. His beloved wife is dead, his daughters grown and living in Georgia, his birthplace. He leads a nomadic existence, traveling from one dusty outpost to another, giving public news readings to a frontier populace hungry for glimpses of the world outside.

In the volatile, often ungoverned towns he visits, the news of the world Kidd delivers is carefully curated, a judicious blend of hard news and exotica: The brand new 15th Amendment. “A great windstorm in England that toppled chimney pots.” “British physicist James Maxwell and his theories of electromagnetic disturbances in the ether.” To wit, almost “anything but Texas politics.”

His young companion shares Kidd’s familiarity with battle — the Kiowa, one character notes, “are always at war”— handy skills as they encounter roving bands of brigands and vigilantes, some far more dangerous than the Indians being driven out of the surrounding desert by the U.S. cavalry. Steely, alert, in possession of an enviable poker face when required and able to load and shoot a gun as well as Kidd, Johanna’s fear of whites is as great as her hatred of their customs.

She chafes at the clothing and shoes she’s made to wear, determined to sing her Kiowa songs and cling to rituals that, Jiles makes painfully clear, probably won’t survive the transition back to white society. “[Kidd] made up coffee and a corn dodger and fried bacon. She sat under the canvas side-curtain with her food on a tin plate for a long time. At last she sang over it, as if adoring it, as if the bacon were a live being and the smoking dodger a gift from the Corn Woman.”

Jiles’ uncanny familiarity with the era drops readers directly into each scene, and her precise period details — the difference between a .50-caliber Sharps rifle and a Spencer with its “flatter, barking sound”; the shape of a lapel pin from “Hancock’s Second Artillery Corps, Union”; the Kiowa words Johanna uses as she and the Captain trade basic vocabulary — create a vivid, timeless atmosphere.

And despite the book’s plainspoken dialogue and crisp action, poetry springs from unexpected places: “Long bright crawls of water slid across the livery stable floor and took up the light of the lantern like a luminous stain and the roof shook with the percussion of drops as big as nickels.”

Using hearsay as well as first-hand accounts by parents whose children were stolen, “News of the World” explores the unwillingness or inability of Indian captives to re-assimilate into their former culture. Parallels to today’s immigration issues and refugee crises crop up in Johanna’s encounters with locals, whose suspicion of her sounds all too familiar to our current climate of intolerance: “There’s something wrong with that girl,” observes a local. “For one thing, she can’t speak English.”

For another, children like her are known to “become alcoholics, solitaries,” all of them “restless and hungry for some spiritual solace, abandoned by two cultures.”

Kidd sympathizes with Johanna’s grief, understanding the time it may take for her to adapt, if ever she can, to such an unfamiliar world. Early on, when reminding her of the aunt and uncle she’ll soon meet, he sees how she “seemed to struggle with a tangled thing in her head, something knotted that would not unknot… Her face was no longer a child’s face but one that had gone through something beyond description or comprehension.”

Trust equals survival for Johanna and her Captain, thrown together in desperate circumstances as they are, and Jiles stresses the value of mutual compassion, tolerance and a shared language for a child who belongs to neither world. The slow-sparking alliance between the two is the affecting centerpiece of the novel, a delicate dance of dependency and understanding as funny as it is somber, as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

Every mile of their journey leaves the reader wondering at the advisability of Johanna’s return to her “people” — so different from the warlike but benevolent Kiowa that welcomed her into their tribe, and who still have so much to learn about the meaning of family, belonging and our place in the world.

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