Now a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, News of the World, written by Paulette Jiles, is the latest book to be scratched from my ‘to-read’ list. I saw the previews for the film but didn’t know it was a book until it popped up as a free title on my Amazon Kindle subscription. I’m the type that likes to read a story before I watch it come to life on the screen—seeing the movie first replaces scenes in my imagination with visuals from the film, and the imagined voices tend to replicate the actors’—so I thought I’d bump it up to the top of my list.
Unfortunately, reading the book did not leave me with the desire to go back and see the flick (even with legendary actor Tom Hanks).
An author’s job is to create an atmosphere the reader can get lost in. Dynamic characters, detailed scenery, and engaging conflicts are necessary components to creating a good story. News of the World, does a wonderful job depicting colorful, detailed landscapes of the American southwest, but falls short in other areas. The author has a talent for turning the reader’s imagination into a canvas painted with watercolors, but in this story, there’s a lack of essential elements that left this reader wanting in the end.
Overall Score: 2.5/5
Synopsis (No Spoilers)
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71-year-old two-time war veteran, makes a living by travelling to numerous small towns and reading the news. It’s five years after the American Civil War and most people are illiterate or live in obscure places where newspapers don’t reach, but his readings are a welcomed form of entertainment and information. In his travels, Captain Kidd comes across acquaintances who have commandeered a 10-year-old blonde girl he later calls Johanna.
Johanna has been a captive of the Kiowa Tribe since she was a toddler, but the tribe found her to be more trouble than she was worth—Indians looking after a young white girl attracted too much negative suspicion—so they traded her for a few basic resources. Captain Kidd agreed, out of the kindness of his heart, to take the child across the treacherous land known as Texas to live with her surviving aunt and uncle. This would prove to be a dangerous task considering the wildness of the west and Johanna’s lack of familiarity navigating the ‘white man’s world.’ She didn’t speak a lick of English and was accustomed to tribal life; adjusting was to be a challenge for both her and the captain.
Unfortunately, this is about as much depth as the characters have throughout the story. We never get to see much development out of either of them—the author only glosses over the circumstances that made them them and doesn’t explore the complexities of their relationship—and there’s a lack of conflict beyond the captain’s efforts to “civilize” Johanna. They do face some adversity along their journey but the linear build-up of the story was lackluster and toneless. The so-called ‘exciting’ moments were written and read as plainly as the rest of the book. There was little up and down and while there was a constant sense of threat due to the story’s settings, the tension doesn’t boil over, it simmers.
The author tries to accommodate for this by tugging at the reader’s heartstrings at the end, but I felt hollow and unfulfilled by that point. There was little to keep me engaged with the characters’ plights, and I found myself not caring about them one way or another. They have their moments when they are relatable, but the lack of exploration into the depths of their humanity makes them feel one-dimensional.
What Stood Out
How people survived ‘back in the day’ is pretty fascinating to me. Whether it be 12 years ago (around the time our phones were able to give us directions) or twelve-hundred, there’s something admirable in how previous generations survived. What’s funny is how similar humans of old are to modern day versions of us. For example, in this story and most westerns I’ve read, people have a strong mistrust of others. Everyone was suspicious in a way. People of color were thought to be the biggest threats (freed blacks, Native Americans, foreigners) but there was almost always an underlying sense that a violent shootout could occur at any moment, no matter what races/nationalities were present.
While I believe we’re generally more trusting, capable of seeing the good in others, and less volatile than those living during the Wild West era, it would seem we still have some work to do. However, we’ve come a very long way since those turbulent times. Back then, as depicted in the book, you couldn’t even travel into a neighboring town without fear of running into bandits, crossing into Indian territory, or bumping into a murderous wanderer. Everyone and everywhere was life-threatening.
Another nugget that stood out in this book was Captain Kidd’s desire to keep the peace when reading the news. Political tensions were high and fragile with the war still fresh in everyone’s mind, and when given information leaning to one side of a political spectrum, people tended to erupt in screaming matches and fistfights; sometimes resulting in death. Our main character read neutral news unless there was pertinent information that he couldn’t avoid giving (like when the 14th amendment was introduced). He even avoided reading from papers known to skew the truth to fit within a particular point of view or to sway the reader’s opinions. He did this in spite of calls from audiences to read from their favorite publications, even when it meant he wouldn’t get paid.
Captain Kidd conducted his business this way, not just to limit conflict while he worked, but because he was tired of the death ’causes’ or over-simplified ideals inevitably led to. In the book it says, ““but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself.” “Who cares for your fashions and your wars and your causes? I will shortly be gone and I have seen many fashions come and go and many causes so passionately defended only to be forgotten.”
I can understand his exhaustion.
The story was well-paced throughout its entirety but again, it never manages to do anything with the tension nor does it build upon the character’s foundations. Perhaps this was the author’s intention, but I felt incomplete by the story’s anti-climatic and predictable end.
Another thing I must point out is that the imagery is rich, sometimes breath-taking, causing me to imagine myself on horseback trotting through the Texas plains as the sun sets over the horizon. Maybe the author was creating a sub-story by using landscapes symbolically, but I’m not the type to try and interpret every sentence I read as something beyond its literal sense (sometimes the sun is just the sun, water is just water, etc.)
The mellow settings the characters travelled bled into the plot, making this read tedious and boring. One is likely to finish the book in hopes of reaching an explosive conclusion, but will likely find themselves disappointed by a feeling of excitement that never reaches its peak. Reading this book is like climbing a mountain, reaching the middle, then circling it without ever going higher or sinking lower.
Before You Go!
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