Because I need a few more days to mull over what I’m going to say about the new President on this blog, I thought I could review one of my already favorite books of the year.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles was a quiet simmer, a rustle, a murmur. I hadn’t read anything about it other than it was a finalist for the National Book Award and that there were 73 people on the library waiting list before me. That’s an accurate portrayal, not a fudged number. I can tell now, why, and why it has such a catastrophically high Goodreads score. Usually, even my favorite books tap out at 3.2, maybe 3.4 if there’s an influx of smart, beautiful readers, but typically all books stay average, even the good ones. (I don’t have any stats on this, this is just sheer user interpretation).
Right now, News of the World has a 4.23 star score on Goodreads. I’m going to make the argument that it’s all about the characters (and then the setting, and then the pacing, and then the softness, in that order). There’s two main characters and then a handful of townspeople that we meet as they travel through Texas. The two main characters are Cho-Henna and Kep-Dun. Captain Kidd is a former military messenger and Johanna is a girl who was captured by the Kiowa Tribe at a young age and only knows that life. However, at the beginning of the book, Kidd accepts guardianship of returning her to what’s left of her family (an aunt and uncle) and thus the book begins.
The entirety of this book is their journey on just a few roads. Kidd is stopping in towns to read the news from local and international papers, a former print shop owner, he likes to create fairytales of far-off places in the minds of Texans, and while doing that he teaches Cho-Henna a few “house rules” without changing who she is at the core. I fell in love with both of these characters. By the end of the book, I could actually hear the peep of Cho-Henna’s voice saying “Kep-Dun” from behind a flour barrel, or underneath a blanket.
She was so quiet, almost silent, and yet the sound of her stays with me. It wasn’t the voice of the character that was so moving in this book, it was the subtle sounds of everyday life that she made. The way she patted the captains arm, or handed him dimes to be used as bullets, or ripped the lace from her skirt. Those sounds that create a live-action movie in the reader’s heads. I knew that countryside while I was riding, and although we had to listen for the sounds of danger, it was so easy being with Captain Kidd and Johanna just a little while longer. I feel the same soft spot for Johanna that Kidd grows in this story.
And although we know from the beginning that this will end tied with a bow, I don’t fault Jiles for the conclusion being that neat. This was a feel-good story from the very beginning. I eased through the way Captain Kidd treated Johanna like she didn’t need to be anyone but herself in order to get along in the world. He could only teach her this through his own ways of being in the world, just a visitor, always in motion, and always with a message. At one point, he thinks the following:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed” (121).
I think this was just the most perfect instance of how life is made. Whether we’re Captain Jeffrey Kidd making life after the Civil War, or we’re a child with two visions of the world that collide and collapse at random. I’ve harped about this idea of purpose for the last several months. I’m a pray-er, I don’t know what you guys believe, or what religious doctrine you follow, if any, but I like to send open words out into the air and hope someone is catching them (kind of like The BFG and dreams).
For a long while, every time I prayed about being a teacher, I got a solidified answer as to why I needed to keep doing it. Even in my most desperate, cry on the side of the bed as I slide down the post, moments. Where a whole tissue box wasn’t enough, and neither was the constant heaving, I got a sign the next day, or a word, or a moment. When I decided to quit teaching, those signs that I was holding like small weapons against any stray ideas, went dark. I couldn’t find anything telling me to “just keep swimming.” I was carrying a message, but I didn’t think it was the right one anymore.
I’ve had a lot of nights where I manically mindmap my purpose. Where I talk to myself about podcasts, and blogging, and editing, and reading, and making life. Not making a living, but just making life. I’ve tried to find goals and make them into something. Truth be told, I’m lost as hell. But with all of that, I’m also in a moment of creation.
“To go through our first creation is a turning of the soul we hope toward the light, out of the animal world. God be with us. To go through another tears all the making of the first creation and sometimes it falls to bits” (56).
In situations like this there’s that constant nag of failure. It creates a lot of fear. And that’s what wasn’t in this book. Neither character was tied to a certain message, a certain town or person or purpose. Both were just between living. Sure, their road had an end. Captain Kidd had a goal and a $50 gold coin to show for it. He had a mission for Johanna that wasn’t of her choosing, but was still a mission they both partook. And so maybe, it’s corny, but maybe it’s true – it’s about the journey. I know this book was.
This was one of those moments where I hit the just right book at the just right time. So what if the goal isn’t clear? So what if we’re reinventing all the time? If people know us as a chameleon or a lover of adventure or just someone that can’t stay focused? So what? Make life. Make it with people who don’t have to speak because the thud of their feet in the hallway and the click of a radio button and the morning voices of Mike & Mike are the only reconciliation you need. (Thanks, Beej). This is true for these two characters and I would argue that it’s true for most of us. If we gave up speaking, we would still make love with sounds. If we lost our voices, we would still show pity, embarrassment, joy with the soft strokes of being human.
News of the World is that subtle reminder that we all need. I highly recommend this read because it will seriously melt your heart. In many book clubs they’re recommending it be paired with Tribe by Sebastian Junger. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy of that next. Get both from the library and dog-ear every page you love for the next person. Leave that muted symbol, imagine the rubbed sound of crisped page against their thumb.