News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
Harper Collins 2016
By Scott Zesch
St. Martin’s Press, 2004
“The news of the world” is what Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reads to ranchers and cowboys gathered in the saloons and public halls of the Texas frontier in 1870.
A former Army officer and retired printer, Kidd now collects coins in a paint can to bring tidings from distant lands to the frontiersmen. His readings are selective, as he realizes that people want “not only information, but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information.”
And then Kidd is confronted with someone truly mysterious. He is asked to return to her family a ten-year old white girl who had been captured by the Kiowa from her parents’ log cabin some time before. Now she has forgotten her parents, thinks of herself as Native American, and does not want to go home. Kidd accepts this job out of compassion for the girl, and over the 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio he earns her trust as he teaches her English and defends her against predators (human, not animal).
In News of the World, Paulette Jiles gives us a beautifully written elegy on the Texas landscape before it was paved over and developed. She offers us a fascinating story, but also a psychological mystery. How was it that so many of the child captives of the Kiowa, the Comanche and the Apache peoples adapted so fully into their adopted Native American families that they did not want to return?
In her end notes Jiles recommends a book that she used in her research. Published in 2004, Scott Zesch’s book, The Captured, gives us some insights. Zesch is a great nephew of Adolph Korn, who was captured by the Comanche in 1870, eventually returned to his family and never fully adjusted. Zesch considers the psychological condition “the Stockholm Syndrome” in which captives adopt the values of their captors in order to stay alive, later to stay sane. But the most convincing explanation is that for children of frontier settlers, Indian (Zesch uses this term) tribal life was simply more fun. White families at this time in Texas lived in scattered log cabins, with many people crammed into one uncomfortable room. Schools did not exist. Life consisted of one day after the other of work, work, work. And fear of raids on horses and people by the roaming Comanche.
Traumatic as their capture was (because the children taken by the native raiders usually saw their adult relatives and infant siblings killed) the captives were fully adopted into tribal life. The Comanche seemed to have no other purpose in capturing children except to build up the tribe. Boys were trained to be warriors, girls to do work like cleaning the killed buffalo, drying their meat and tanning their hides, and other domestic chores. Compared to white frontier life, though, the freedom experienced by both boys and girls in the Indian camps was considerable. Unlike the unremitting labor they were used to, the children had time to swim and ride horses, to learn to hunt and to fight. For boys this was the fantasy life of the novels they’d never been taught to read. For girls, their adoptive mothers were very loving.
I read The Captured in order to better understand Johanna, the fictional child captive in News of the World. I came to realize the irony of Jiles’ title. The people of the frontier in the 1870s were far from home, trying to tame an unforgiving land. For them, “the news of the world” was the trumpet call of civilization. Globalization was coming to the American West. The news of the world had been hidden from the Native Americans, who were content with the way things were and always had been. The news of the world had enticed settlers to come far from everything they knew. Now they longed for an imagined or concocted world of “civilization” and its comforts. One way or another, the news of the world conquered everything in its path, causing the destruction of a thriving, healthy, thousands-years old way of life. Paulette Jiles’ novel leaves one pondering these thoughts long after the last page is read.