News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

newsoftheworldTitle: News of the World

Author: Jiles, Paulette (Author’s Website)

Genre: Western, historical fiction

Bibliographic: William Morrow, 224 pages, Hardcover List Price $22.99, Audiobook List Price $17.95, ISBNs

Publication Date: October 4, 2016

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♥♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Complex characters, flawed characters, character-driven, compelling, descriptive

Why I picked it up: I read Standing in the Light over and over as a child, and this looked like it might have a similar vibe (but for grownups).

S.I.A.S.: Johanna was kidnapped by the Kiowa when she was very small, and Captain Kidd has to return her to her family.

Summary: Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, makes his living by traveling through Texas reading newspapers aloud to packed audiences. One night after a reading, a man approaches him with an offer he can’t refuse: he is in custody of a ten-year-old girl, named Joanna, who was taken captive by the Kiowa four years ago. He’s been asked to return her to her family, but as a black man he doesn’t feel safe traveling through rural Texas with a little blonde girl, so he offers Captain Kidd fifty dollars to deliver her safely to her Aunt and Uncle in San Antonio.

Kidd agrees, and so he and Joanna begin a journey south through the wilds of Texas. They encounter several of Captian Kidd’s friends, including a weelwright/musician and his fiance who offer to adopt Joanna, as well as quite a few enemies. There are people who want to buy Joanna for their prostitution ring and people who hate Captain Kidd because they assume his political views don’t align with theirs. Along the way, Captain Kidd has been teaching Joanna the English language and the rules of white society, and they begin to develop a camaraderie. When they arrive in San Antonio, Captain Kidd has to decide whether it is in her best interests to follow the law and keep his word and deliver her to her family.

Evaluation:  I went into this book with pretty low expectations (I’ve been trying to broaden my horizons, but I really do hate westerns) and was pleasantly surprised by how tolerable it was. It is very well-written and the plot moves along at a pretty leisurely pace. The only character who I would say was truly well-developed is Captain Kidd, since the book is told from his perspective (third-person omniscient) and all the other characters except Joanna just pass through the story. I didn’t quite believe how quickly Joanna came to love and trust Captain Kidd, but other than that her development was fine. I particularly liked how she recovered her words, and how it took her awhile to see their coins as anything other than ammunition.

I do think this book would work for a lot of people — anyone who enjoys westerns or who primarily reads literary fiction. I think its National Book Award nomination is warranted; it is a very good book even if I didn’t personally enjoy it.

One last thing — I listened to this as an audiobook, and Grover Gardner did a pretty good job with it. The only flaw I’d note in his narration is Joanna. She very much sounded like an adult man trying to sound like a little girl.

Significance: This book is a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award, and may be extra popular for that reason.

Readalikes: The Son, by Philipp Meyer. Far as the Eye Can See, by Robert Bausch. Bohemian Girl, by Terese Svoboda.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is Captain Kidd able to make a living reading newspapers to people? What is the appeal of the stories to people living on the frontier?
  2. Why did Captain Kidd agree to take Joanna? Why did Joanna so immediately warm to Captain Kidd?
  3. Imagine this story from the perspective of Joanna’s Kiowa family. Why might they have taken her in? Why were her aunt and uncle so reluctant to do so?
  4. Think of News of the World’s minor characters. Which was the most interesting? Which one surprised you the most?
  5. Were you satisfied with the ending? What would you have chosen to do, in Captain Kidd’s position?

Lists and Awards:  LibraryReads Favorites: 2016. National Book Award Finalist.

Professional Reviews: Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. Romance Times. Washington Post. Minnesota Star Tribune.

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