Paulette Jiles’s latest historical fiction novel, News of the World, introduces us to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower who makes his living traveling through Texas and giving public readings from newspapers at each town he stops in. On one circuit, he’s offered a very different sort of job: returning a young girl who was held captive by the Kiowa for several years to her family. This turns out not to be a straightforward endeavor. The girl, Johanna, has forgotten most of her English, as well as the social customs of (white) Americans. She has no memory of her birth family and doesn’t really want to go back to them.
Over the course of the novel, Johanna slowly grows to trust Kidd. The portrayal of this gradual evolution in their relationship is well-done and poignant. There are moments of humor as well, and some action when a third party tries to kidnap Johanna for his own nefarious purposes. The description of the wide-open landscape of northern Texas is vivid, and the book delves into the delicate political situation of post-Civil War America. (At one point, an argument during one of Kidd’s news readings devolves into a brawl!)
The main flaw in the story comes right at the beginning. We only see Kidd for a couple of pages before he accepts the commission to escort Johanna. As they spend time together, his reasons for taking the job, for wandering Texas as a newsreader, and for other decisions he makes, become apparent. But so little time is spent establishing his character at the beginning of the story that it isn’t clear then why he takes the job. Some of the meaning of Kidd’s effect on Johanna, and vice-versa, is lost when we haven’t gotten a chance to see who Kidd was before he met her. It’s still a fascinating story, but spending a little bit of time on establishing character could have made it even more compelling.