Sometimes I read a book that’s on the National Book Award Longlist and I wonder what I missed, because I don’t get it.
And then sometimes I read a book on the NBA longlist (this one is now on the shortlist, but the way) and I think “YES! THIS is a book EVERYONE needs to read!”
News of the World is that book.
(Taken from the publisher) – It is 1870 and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.
In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.
Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forging a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.
Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself. Exquisitely rendered and morally complex, News of the World is a brilliant work of historical fiction that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.
News of the World really surprised me. I wasn’t all that excited to read a book about 19th century Texas.
But then I couldn’t put it down.
This one fits right into one of my favorite forms of literature: the quest. Someone sets off to do something and learns something about himself, even if he doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing.
We have Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the ex-soldier who travels around reading the news. And we have his QUEST: deliver 10 year-old Johanna back to her family. Along the way he butts heads with this lost child (after being held by Kiowa raiders for years, she’s forgotten what she’s meant to be), and he has to fight and escape some really bad men who want to take her and make her a prostitute.
But the two fall into an alliance, and then they fall into a father/daughter (or grandfather/granddaughter) sort of relationship. And giving her back to uncaring family is heartbreaking.
Kidd is introspective from the beginning. He knows he loves being a messenger, and loves delivering the news to people who either don’t have instant access to the news from around the world. But he’s also lonely and alone, and starts to learn that on his journey.
And Johanna is on her own quest, although she has no idea. She’s really the package, but she needs to figure out who she is. She’s so lost, a child stuck between two cultures (the Kiowa and her white relatives), and she needs to find a place in order to survive.
In fact, they both do. Kidd is an old soldier who doesn’t want to soldier. She’s a white child who wants to be a Kiowa. Neither one fits into their designated roles, but where else could they fit other than the Wild West?!
As I said, I love a good quest. But this one’s great because the characters are cut and dried without being cut and dried. They’re the good guys, and we know they’re the good guys. So there’s no ambiguity there. The bad guys are bad, at least on the quest (are the Kiowa bad? I was torn there — their country, but what did they do to Johanna to make her want to stay with them? And how about her relatives? Neither is clearly good nor bad.), and that’s nice. The white hats and the black hats are clearly labeled, at least as far as the journey goes.
And can we just talk about the writing style?! Stark and beautiful and raw, just like the West in 1870. I love it when a writer can use style to help readers understand the setting and the people.
So News of the World gets 5 stars from me. I LOVED it.