Set in the sparsely populated state of Texas in 1870, this is the story of a relationship between Captain, a seventy-two-year-old man who makes his living as a reader of the news in small towns in northern Texas, and a ten-year-old Indian captive he is returning to her German relatives outside of San Antonio. This long and dangerous journey through the uninhabited territory of Texas is the action of the novel. It unfolds in a mostly linear fashion with few flashbacks. The Captain and Johanna are an odd pair in their small, light excursion wagon with the previous owner's business, "Curative Waters," lettered on its sides, one horse pulling, one horse following, and side curtains protecting their belongings which include a small cookstove the Captain teaches Johanna to use.
The Captain is a veteran of three wars and his knowledge of people, native tribes as well as the inhabitants of the towns they pass through, shows the reader that he is a careful, discerning, and moral man, who takes his duty seriously, even though his reluctant charge only wants to return to the Kiowa tribe that held her for four years and then sold her back to the white man. Johanna thinks of herself as Kiowa and has forgotten English, German, and the habits of white people, including the wearing of dresses and eating with forks. She is a warrior at heart, fighting the Captain and the ladies he pays to bathe and clothe her and at every opportunity, trying to escape. When he teaches her how to cook on the stove, she makes their meals happily, but when he shows her where he stores his extra ammunition (in the canister of flour) and how to use the shotgun that is backup to the rifle he carries himself, the reader suspects he is too trusting. But the gesture proves to be wise because slowly, Johanna becomes a true partner.
We learn about the Captain's previous life through backstory; before marrying and settling down in San Antonio where he had two daughters with his beloved Mexican wife and ran a print shop, the Captain was a messenger for the military. Those early years, carrying messages from one calvary unit to another, were happy ones, as is his present occupation as a news reader. He is a nomad at heart, Johanna is too, but the Captain, as careful and wise as he appears to be, as knowledgeable about guns, is not a true warrior like his young charge, he is not even carrying enough ammunition for his rifle. When they are attacked by a curious threesome who have been tracking them since their journey started, a white man who wants to steal Johanna for prostitution, and the two Caddos Indians that travel with him, the battle that follows may be the most exciting in all of literary fiction. The Captain quickly runs out of bullets and they appear to be beaten. That is when the child warrior comes into her own and they vanquish the enemy by brilliant and unusual means.
For the last hundred pages the dangers continue, but there is a new respect between them, even love. The Captain thinks he is finished with love, but although they outwitted the evil pedophile, the journey to return Johanna to her relatives is not over yet, and love will call on him once again.
News of the World is a masterpiece of character development because Jiles is a supremely visual writer. That may be a curious thing to say, but I believe that is the quality that makes it truly exceptional. The narrator's eye in this third person novel (mostly limited to the Captain's point of view, but with occasional forays into Johanna's point of view as well as the point of view of a horse and a bird, so I will call it omniscient), continually shows us what things look like. We see how the land changes; we see how the rigors of the journey alter the Captain's appearance, and we see how Johanna wrestles with the dresses she is imprisoned in, at one point tucking the annoying skirts into her belt so she seems to be wearing pantaloons. These visuals mark the changes in their behavior and attitude; when Johanna braids her hair, she is preparing for battle, when the Captain puts on his worn and stained travelling clothes, he is no longer the elegant old man reading the news, but an armed nomad.
It is a cinematic novel, but what drew me in, from the beginning, and kept on feeding me as I read, was the pleasure of the language. The sentences flow nimbly, words and punctuation are chosen for the rhythm and sound that will reveal the Captain's deepest thoughts. Interiority is always accompanied by the visual. As you will see in the following excerpt, the character's revelations feel anything but arbitrary because they're rooted in the concrete world and expressed though the, by now, familiar rhythms of his thoughts. "He sat on his carpetbag and leaned against a wheel. His mind kept going back to the fight and to put it aside he watched Pasha graze and drank black coffee and smoked his pipe. Johanna played in the stream like a six-year-old. She turned over rocks and sang and splashed. To comfort himself and slow down his mind he thought of his time as a courier, a runner, and Maria Luisa and his daughters. 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 a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed."
By the end of their journey, the reader knows what that message is, even if the Captain professes ignorance. The reader has received it, and for this reader, it is radiant.