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"Born Into a New Life Through Violence": Paulette Jiles on "News of the World"

JilesOne of our Best of the Month picks for October is Paulette Jiles's post Civil War western, News of the World. In it a war-weary widower, traveling from town to town reading relevant bits of news to paying customers, is given a $50 dollar gold piece to run an unusual errand: He must ferry a kidnapped girl back to what's left of her family--her parents and sister having been murdered by members of the Kiowa tribe--who spare the then 6-year-old and raise her as one of their own. Here, Jiles provides historical context and details the real-life story that inspired this National Book Award-nominated novel.

We do not always know where we are meant to be. We do not always know what we are to do when we get there. In News of the World a fictional girl named Johanna Leonberger, six years old, is taken captive by the Kiowa in 1866, and like many of us many times in our lives she found herself at the mercy of strangers in an unknown land. Born into a new life through violence and shock and awe and gunfire, adopted by a Kiowa woman, crossing the Red Rolling Plains, her former life streamed out behind her like smoke and like smoke it drifted and disappeared. The Kiowa language became her only language, the Red Rolling Plains and the Wichita Mountains her only geography. The stars she might have known as The Seven Sisters were now The Rainy Stars, and the songs she learned to sing were in the pentatonic scale.

Many captives were taken in those years, including the historical Millie Durgan, age two, in a raid in 1863, who was renamed Sain-to-odii, and whose life became that of a Kiowa forever. At age 82, when Sain-to-odii was briefly reunited with her white relatives, she was presented with a birthday cake and had no idea why people stuck candles in it and lit them on fire. She spoke no English. When urged to blow them out she remained painfully confused until the candles were puddles of wax in a mass of lemon frosting.

Our fictional captive, Johanna, must have realized some bright morning in the Wichita Mountains that this was where she was meant to be because she had been taken and transported in blood and fire into the protective arms of a Kiowa mother. On their tipi was painted the great Underwater Panther, a creature known throughout all the tribes of the new world as a being of astonishing power, half-serpent, half-cat. The Wichita Mountains had pines that made the rushing glottal sound that pines do in a wind, and the water was clear and always falling downward and downward again to the plains. She and the other girls dared each other to hold their noses and jump in, while her mother, Three Spotted, yelled, warning that she would ruin her dress, ruin her dress! She knew the sun got to where it was because Saynday had stolen it from the people on the other side of the world and set it to traveling across the sky. Fox helped him. They did it by thinking everything out and being clever. And those people on the other side of the world did nothing but play kickball with it!

Saynday threw the Sun up as high as he could and it stuck in the sky and hung there. He commanded it to travel from one side of the world to the other so all could share.

Now we can see where we're going, said Fox.

Now we won't stumble around in the dark and run into things, said Deer.

Ain't it grand? said Saynday. This is the life.

And then when she was some age between being very small and being a girl, a famine came upon her clan of the Kiowa. When the soldiers and the Indian Agent pressed them to turn in their white captives, she found herself torn from Three Spotted. She was told she would be taken back to her relatives and for a moment she was transported with relief and delight, thinking they were sending her back to Three Spotted. But no; this was where she was meant to be. She had been exchanged for food, for horses, for blankets and coin silver. Maybe someday she could say that this pain and terror and abandonment had saved her clan. She watched them leave with the wind boiling the dust up from their horses' feet, as if every step they took set the world on fire.

It was very hard. She was handed over to an old man with silver hair. He sent her to women who pushed, squeezed, and buttoned her into outlandish clothes. And then she and the old man began some long journey, to where she did not know. Maybe to someplace else she was supposed to be, toward some special task she was to perform upon arrival, but that was in the hands of her guardian spirit, if only he would speak to her now and again, but he didn't so she sang in order to call him, sang all the way from Wichita Falls to Spanish Fort. She was singing for meaning.

The old man was very kind and he had a gold watch and finally, one day, she called him Kon-tah, Grandfather, because she knew he was a Koitsenko, an old warrior, and he would stand between her and this hostile, strange, lonely world. And so her story unfolded in stark colors and primal forms: the Underwater Panther of great power; the trickster Saynday who loved to dance and sing; odd remembered words like five, happy, fall down, gentleman. And she prayed to her guardian spirit: If you know where I am going and what I am to do when I get there, please let me know.

A girl of enormous courage and spirit, thought the old man.And I have already raised two daughters but I will stand between her and harm as long as I can stand upright and beyond.  

Until he had to hand her over to her relatives.


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