News of the World is one of those short novels written by a poet where every image and syllable is rife with meaning and symbolic import. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story of 72-year-old Captain Jefferson Kidd, an old soldier and former owner of a printing press who makes his living reading newspapers aloud in public, and how he transports a ten-year-old white girl who has spent the past four years as a captive of the Kiowa more than seven hundred miles to her surviving white relatives. (If you’re thinking The Searchers, quit—this is more of a late-in-life Paul Newman role with a well-crafted political point of view that’s all the way 2016.) Incidents ensue that all feel true to life, and the conclusion satisfies. But as much as I love westerns and liberal politics and stories about old men and the power of words, I can’t say I loved this. I liked it okay; I admire Jilles’ research and craftsmanship; I agree with all her points. But the story just didn’t move me.
I suspect Jilles’ is a cracking fine poet. There is much here about things being biscuit-colored and the emotional states of rivers. The character of Kidd is a work of art all by himself, specific and original and full of interesting, relatable depths. His biography, delivered in dribs and drabs of memory and flashback, was my favorite part of the book by miles. But this particular journey and the child for whom he takes it just didn’t interest me all that much. In her author’s note, Jilles’ cites a non-fiction book about the psychology of non-Native-American children taken captive by tribes in the Old West, and I don’t doubt that she read it cover to cover, along with plenty of solid primary sources on the Kiowa language, period clothing, the roads in Texas at the time, and late-19th-century printing. And Texas politics—I’m sure there were even more artful parallels drawn between the violent and clueless white folks she creates for her story and the real ones we know today than I recognized, but I don’t have the strength, will, or energy to try to pull them out. All of this stuff is interesting, but the story feels too thin and tenuous to support its weight. I didn’t have any problem finishing the book, but I just couldn’t care about it much; it never engaged my heart. Ultimately it felt more like an essay or a non-fiction article than a novel.
I’m glad I read it, and I will read more from this writer. But I can’t imagine myself ever reading this one again.