Pune, 11th April 2021: We all rely on the news to know about the happenings of the world. The morning newspaper is our everyday means to know the current affairs of the country and the places beyond. But that does raise an interesting question, in good old days, how many of them had access to the newspapers or radio, especially in remote towns or countryside? People would rely on the travellers to give them information about what is happening beyond the horizon. The gypsies, nomads along with the wind carried the news from one place to another. The book, News of the World, written by Paulette Jiles, introduces a very interesting profession that involves reading the news from the leading newspapers to the people in the remote towns of Northern Texas.
We were asked to read this book for a book discussion and the theme was western. A movie based on this book was released last Christmas with Tom Hanks in the lead role. That set the expectations in the right course. Any movie which features Tom Hanks, cannot go wrong.
So, albeit the fact that the book started slow, and the dialogues were mixed up with the narration, without any quotation marks, I held on to the book in good faith, trusting Tom Hanks, and oh boy, after a while, it paid off so well. The book revolves around an unlikely bond between an ageing itinerant reader and a 10-year-old German girl who was captured by a native Kiowa tribe when she was 6.
The year is 1870, just after the civil war. Texas, like other states in the US, is trying to stabilize post-war and deal with the changing political and cultural landscape. There are coloured men who are set free, the Republicans have got their foothold on Texas, but still, there is a rivalry within the party upon the direction the state is heading to, the captives who were held long by the native tribes are being ransomed by the US Army and are set free to re-join their families. Captain Kidd, a 71-year-old retired army officer and a widower, has seen it all, participated in three wars, run a printing press, raised his family, and has seen his daughters married and settled in far off places. He earns his living in a very interesting way, he collects information from the leading newspapers around the world and then reads all the fascinating information across the globe to the people in the small towns in Northern Texas. People come in hoards for his reading sessions, they love hearing news on what is happening in far off places like Europe, India or Russia and pay him for the news.
When he is travelling to one such small town to read the news, he is asked to transport a captive back to her family near San Antonio, south of Texas for good 50-dollar gold. The girl is 10-year-old, captured by the Kiowa tribe and is completely transformed into one of their own. She does not speak English nor does she remember any events of her past prior to her capture except the memories of her parents and her sister. Captain Kidd and the girl, Johanna, begin their journey in North, near Wichita, to travel down south, where few of her German relatives, are willing to adopt her.
Then the story follows the western style, the vast plains and wilderness of Texas, the raiders, thieves, bandits, chase and ambush. As they confront few perils, slowly they begin to warm up to each other, and Johanna starts trusting Captain Kidd and calls him grandfather. He tries to teach her the civilized way of living and she starts speaking broken English with him. Captain Kidd is initially under an illusion that he is saving her and reforming her, but Johanna loves the free native Indian way of living so much, that she finds civilization more binding. But despite their contradicting beliefs, they still bond with each other. In their journey, they meet some really interesting characters, a fiddler whose music transforms the world around him, a kind lady who makes the most delicious chocolates, and a farmer who has to let go of his chicken to satiate the hunger of Johanna. Johanna is looked upon with scorn at many places and is an object of interest to few. They meet soldiers, raiders, thieves along their way and also narrowly escape a chase. When they finally reach the destination, Captain Kidd is left with two choices, can he leave Johanna with her foster family, who are resolute about using her as a slave, or should he take her under his wing, which makes him a kidnapper in the face of law?
It is a beautiful tale of courage and affection, books like this reinforce empathy and kindness in each of our minds. The book does have a fairy tale ending, so it is difficult to categorize it as realistic fiction, but we all can use a dash of fairy dust in our lives, isn’t it?
On the flip side, the book is a slow read. It takes a while to get into the book and understand its rhythm. It covers a great deal of history about Texas, especially the social and political landscape post-civil war. It does get difficult to keep up with the facts.
But if you are ready to plunge into the vast Texas plains, encounter native Indians, thieves, raiders, the rolling hills of the hill country, and witness a very unconventional bonding between two interesting characters, do not miss this book. Trust Tom Hanks and delve deep. I just watched the trailer and looking forward to watching the movie as soon as it is available to rent.
A full five stars from me for this book, the true Texan style.
(Anantha Alagappan is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theatre. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.)Follow Punekar News: