The elevator pitch for Paulette Jiles's new novel, News of the World, just announced as a finalist for the National Book Awards, would be something like True Grit meets Lonesome Dove, maybe with a little Cormac McCarthy thrown in for seasoning. It's set in the Old West, after all, and features a tough, likeable old codger, a troubled, troublesome young girl and a harsh and unforgiving landscape.
The story of News of the World, set in Texas in 1870, begins when 71-year-old Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower and a veteran of two wars, is asked to transport a 10-year-old girl to her relatives near San Antonio. Her name is Johanna Leonberger, captured and adopted four years before by Kiowa raiders, who killed the rest of her German immigrant family. She has been "rescued" – purchased is more like it, "for fifteen Hudson's Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware" – but has forgotten whatever English she knew, and keeps trying to escape and return to her Kiowa family. It promises to be a long, difficult journey, and Kidd is reluctant to take it on. But there is a $50 gold piece to be made, and he would be doing a favour for his friend Britt Johnson, a former slave turned hard-working teamster/entrepreneur (and the protagonist of Jiles's earlier novel The Color of Lightning).
Captain Kidd, an itinerant former newspaper publisher, updates, educates and entertains the far-flung frontier communities by reading from newspapers. "He would give them a few paragraphs of hard news and then read of dreamlike places far removed," feature articles about the recently passed 15th Amendment (granting the vote to all U.S. male citizens "regardless of previous servitude") and Arctic exploration (the ship Hansa "crushed and sunk" north of Greenland). Townsfolk pay a dime each to get into the readings. Kidd carries a revolver in case the audience gets out of hand, which in Reconstruction Texas, with its corrupt Union-appointed government and its disaffected former Confederate populace, is not uncommon.
So the unlikely pair set off together, stopping at towns along the way so that Kidd can rent a space, print up posters and select the stories he'll read that night. In the first place he sets up, Spanish Fort, she runs off but is stopped by the Little Wichita River, "a loose and moving ocean of foaming rusty floodwater nearly half a mile wide that carried off entire trees."
Alone and abandoned by the only family she remembers, forcibly bathed and dressed in strange clothes, Johanna is stoically resigned to her fate, at least for the time being. She begins to make herself useful in many and surprising ways.
Kidd is gruff and no-nonsense, but generally kind, and, having had daughters of his own, he is especially sympathetic to his ward's plight. The two survive bad weather, unfriendly townspeople, rowdy crowds, floods and heat, and – at one desperate point – a disagreement with bad men who try to buy Johanna, but don't mind stealing her if it comes to that. Like Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, they come to respect and count on each other over the course of their arduous journey.
The worst trial comes when they finally reach San Antonio. Johanna's uncle and aunt are not thrilled to have her returned; for her part, Johanna sees them as total strangers. Captain Kidd (Johanna calls him "Kep-dun") is faced with a dilemma: Should he leave her, as he was "contracted" to do? Or should he seek some other solution? No points for guessing which way he goes.
Jiles is a Canadian, born in Missouri and currently living in San Antonio. She has won several awards for both poetry and prose, including the Governor-General's Award for her 1984 book of poetry, Celestial Navigation, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for 2002's Enemy Women, another post-U.S. Civil War novel set in Texas. But she may be best remembered as the author of Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Kola: A Manual of Etiquette for Ladies Crossing Canada by Train, a quirky love story-cum-detective novel that became a cult classic and is still, I believe, in print. She has written 15 or so other books of various types, including 2013's Lighthouse Island, a dystopian science-fiction work. But having said all that, I think her heart, and her best work, is in Texas.
Jiles's poetic background is obvious in News of the World, in her vividly detailed and effortlessly evocative descriptions of the harsh Texas countryside, but she is also a dab hand with characters, minor and major. I was pulling for Kidd and Johanna all the way, of course, but even the supporting characters are memorable and well drawn.
But for all the harshness of the landscape and the dire situations confronting the two central characters, there is a strong underpinning of humanity throughout the novel, a sense of community, family and friendship, and a great deal of sly humour as well. The U.S. Old West is an iconic place in our imaginations and News of the World is a first-rate addition to the canon.
Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.