I’m writing this review on Columbus Day, or Indigenous People’s Day, and pre-loading it for closer to the book’s release. There is an irony in this, as the genocide that occurred to the indigenous people of the very place where I’m typing – San Antonio, TX – wiped away entire civilizations to make room for a new, mongrel race of European and African immigrants that merged with what was present on the land, if what was present deigned to assimilate into our society on our terms. Those terms were, naturally, awful to the native people and Africans and Mexicans with Indian Heritage.
Sometimes, though, children from the European people were taken by the natives, and raised as native children. They were often taken during violent raids by the native tribes that were known for their brutality. Unlike the peaceful Cherokee, for instance, that actively sought to assimilate, the Wichita and Apache and raiding tribes fought to keep their country. They murdered settlers in the kind of total war that was what was done to them. The children they took were witness to unspeakable violence. They had to become their kidnappers, and had no choice in the matter. I’m not even getting to the book. I’m talking around it. I’m not reaching the characters, because the situation is so morally complex!
See how hard it is to talk about this terrible situation without stumbling all over the racism and the genocide and the injustice? I can’t even begin to describe the character, Johanna, who was taken in a brutal raid when she was six, and kept for four years with the Wichita. At the end of the Indian Wars, if they ever ended, tribes learned that they had to give back their captives or face retribution. Johanna was given back; she was bought for a fifty gold coin piece by her uncle in a German settlement outside of San Antonio near modern day Leon Valley. The black man who initially takes her to Dallas from the Red River near Oklahoma is unwilling to take a little, blonde, white girl all the way down to San Antonio, having no business there, and no safe business escorting a white girl. He reaches out to Captain Kidd, a military veteran of three wars, who used to run a printing press until the Confederate collapse claimed his business with it. He traveled, then, from town to town, reading the news of the world in meeting halls, for ten cents a head, to the communities that may or may not have access to the recent legislation.
The novel details the dangerous journey south, where a young, blonde Indian captive is a valuable commodity in a fronteir town, but the seventy-one-year old Captain Kidd is honor-bound to deliver his charge across dangerous territory to an aunt and uncle that might not even recognize her on site.
It is a journey through time and history, that grapples with the reality of the situation: Native people’s had to assimilate to the control of the white man or die; the whole way of being in the frontier, and ways of thinking, will be lost, on every side of things. No matter how much news reaches the world, the cycles of violence never seem to end. There is a grand adventure, a poet’s deft touch for language on the page, and the exceptional characterizations of the girl and the Captain on their perilous journey. It’s an exceptional book, and the less I say about it, the better. It grapples with very challenging material, and succeeds by focusing closely on the characters in the moment, and the compassion and empathy that is natural to good men, along with the willingness to face unspeakable violence to protect the ones we love.
I highly recommend Paulette Jiles’ new novel, News of the World.