By Jean B.
I love a book with a map, so News of the World captured me even before page one. Throughout my reading, I pored over the sepia endpaper map of Texas circa 1870, with its bright red line tracing a path from Wichita Falls along the northern border with Indian territory, all the way down to San Antonio and the Rio Grande. As you might guess, given the map, this is a book about a journey – across both rough territory and psychological barriers. As the characters made their way along the bright red line, Giles’ beautiful prose transported me into this time and place and into the lives of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, age 71, and Johanna Leonberger, age 10.
It’s the Reconstruction era in Texas, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty, random violence and unexpected kindness, across an incredibly varied landscape. Captain Kidd, a survivor of three wars, has dedicated his life to connecting people through information. He is alone, having lost his wife and his printing business in the Civil War. Kidd now makes his living by traveling through small towns, performing live readings of newspapers from around the country and the world to isolated residents hungry for stories of faraway places and remarkable events. Suddenly, his nomadic routine is disrupted by an unsought responsibility – he must deliver Johanna, a traumatized orphan who has lived as a captive of the Kiowa tribe for six years and knows no other family, back to her relatives near San Antonio. Traversing that 400 mile path, the characters must overcome challenges small and large and, in the process, build mutual trust and companionship.
I would not call myself a fan of Westerns, in either novels or movies, but Paulette Jiles’ exquisite descriptions of the plants, weather, and settlements of this landscape drew me in. Her writing made me want to ride a horse through the hills, canyons, and prairies of Texas (minus the deadly threats along the way). Maybe I’ll do that someday, but in the meantime, luckily, we can get the visual experience by watching the 2020 movie based on the book! Starring Tom Hanks as Captain Kidd, the movie garnered four Oscar nominations, and you borrow the DVD from HCLS.
While both the book and the movie open a window into a beautiful yet treacherous moment in Texan history, News of the World goes much deeper than a travelogue. Across the miles, the tragic characters discover the power of empathy to leap differences in age, language, experience and loss. Although the book is barely 200 pages, it paints a picture of great historical and personal complexity. If you’re looking for some armchair traveling this summer, News of the World is a journey worth taking – and it comes with a map!
Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. A fan of historical fiction and nonfiction, she also enjoys exploring the natural world through books and on foot.