News of the World – Part One -Book Review

So the big western movie of 2020 was an adaption of the novel “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles, published in 2016. Ms Jiles has spent considerable time working in Canada, and lives in Texas. Of course I wanted to see the movie (and read the book.) Although it would have been best if I could have seen the movie in theatre, that was not to be. My review of the movie follows this post in Part Two.

Part One – Book Review

This audiobook review was written back in March. At that time, in my regional library network, there were 137 people waiting in line for 10 library DVDs.

When I asked my local library for a copy of the book instead, the most quickly available proved to be an audiobook version.
I was somewhat surprised to see that it runs less than 7 hours as an audiobook, it must be a fairly short printed book.

I enjoyed this edition of News of the World, narrated by Grover Gardener. Mr Gardener has narrated well over a thousand audiobooks to date, has been named as one of the “Best Voices of the Century” by Audiofile Magazine and as Best Audiobook Narrator of the Year in 2005 by Publisher’s Weekly. (According to his Wikipedia page.)
I didn’t know this about Mr Gardener when I first began listening, but within half a minute of the narration beginning for this audiobook, I felt comfortable with Mr Gardener’s friendly-sounding, somewhat laid-back narration style. (I also wondered if the narrator sounded vaguely familiar, and indeed it seems likely that I’ve heard him reading a book before.)

There were a few places where I felt that perhaps he was a bit too laid back, when starting ‘action scenes,’ – I listened to much of this book on and off while doing chores and there were a few times when I felt I needed to go back to catch the start of an action because I hadn’t quite clued into the shift into the action while slightly distracted by whichever manual task I was busying myself with – but this was a mere quibble with what is a clearly very professional and enjoyable narration, and unlikely to arise for those listening attentively.

As for the story – I enjoyed that too. It is fairly episodic, which is sensible for what is essentially a ‘road trip’ or quest tale.

In North Texas, not too long after the end of the American Civil War, we meet our somewhat elderly widower hero Captain Kidd (originally of Georgia.) (Will Tom Hanks play this character as old as he is in the book, in the film, I wonder?) Kidd, who might today be considered someone with PTSD, is entrusted by Black freighters with returning a girl of German ancestry ‘recovered’ from Kiowa, to her family. Only her aunt and uncle remain alive in south Texas, and together girl and Captain Kidd must cross much of an anarchic state to reach them. This is sort of like ‘The Searchers’ only the searching for the girl part has already happened, and ‘our hero’ is better educated. (Okay, maybe not much like The Searchers then, really.)

This story does, however, have an old-fashion-y-old-time-y-story feel. (Likely enhanced by the narrator!)

The girl, “Cicada” or Johanna, lived with a Kiowa group she considers her family for several years, following a raid in which her biological parents and sister were killed, and does not remember much of her prior life, although she does remember a few words of English and a few words of German.

Captain Kidd, besides English, understands some Plains Indian Sign Language, as well as a few words of German, and is fluent in Spanish, as he was married to a woman from a Spanish-Texan family. Most importantly however, he is a man with a good, dependable reputation, a man who has raised two daughters, a man of some compassion. He agrees to transport Johanna for a fairly sizable fee, knowing that the journey may be dangerous, and that Johanna may try to flee. However, he has given his word that he will ‘return’ her to her blood family. (I don’t know if Johanna has ever met her aunt and uncle before.)

(I am guessing that in the film, this being Tom Hanks and 2021, they will bury as much as possible that Captain Kidd seems to have supported the Confederacy.)

At the same time, and to help fund their travels, Captain Kidd works as a reader of news stories, bringing the news of the world to those who are either simply looking for some entertainment, or those who can not read, or can not afford to buy all the papers from which he selects the stories to tell, often deliberately choosing tales from afar rather than near-political news, for fear of causing riots.

His greatest hope in life is to bring his adult daughters and son-in-law out to live in Texas with him, on land he hopes to establish as theirs, through their mother’s family, although their legal claims are much complicated by the much-changing political status and statues of Texas.

He occasionally wonders if perhaps there’s another woman that he could settle down with as well.

Captain Kidd has a somewhat sarcastic sense of humour, a bit difficult to pick up on at first, and he unfortunately sometimes seems to be punching down a bit in some of his dialogue with those perhaps not as intelligent or educated as he. He is not a “perfect” hero, which is good, story wise. For the most part, the some-times humour in this book is wryly amusing, as well as sometimes engaging in gentle fish-out-of-water humour, although this is likely not intended to be first and foremost a comedy.

It is instead a rather lyrically-told ‘nice’ slow adventure tale, (perhaps a bit too nice – perhaps a bit mushy-sentimental around the edges) with a few surprises (the person who I thought would be The Big Bad is dealt with half-way-through the book and never reappears, although I suspect that in the film, they stick around longer) and ends with a satisfying conclusion which I could see coming several miles away. There is also some musing about the fate of children who experienced trauma and great cultural shocks as they were kidnapped, traded, ‘re-civilized’ and so forth during ‘the Indian Wars,’ and by extension those who are traumatized today when taken without their agency from their families and/or cultures and expected to adapt to their new situations.

There are some neat details about 19th century life and Texan politics of the time in the background.

The extended epilogue lost this audiobook a half a star from me, and I’ve ended up rating it as three out of five stars on GoodReads. I would have preferred it if it had ended about twenty minutes earlier, without the epilogue, which didn’t seen necessary at all to me. (Perhaps it was necessary to get the book over a word count bar, however.) Although I have read nothing about the film, I expect that it will cut the story so there is no epilogue. That’s what I would do, anyway!

There were also a few times where I felt that I was being told information that I already knew, again and for no good reason.

There may be some people who find the story too slow, but I didn’t really mind it’s gentle pacing.

I understand that some of the content of this story is considered “problematic” by some people, I haven’t investigated what it is that is particularly objected to, perhaps it is simply the idea of writing (and filming) a story about a girl being taken from First Nations people in order to ‘rescue’ and ‘return’ her to ‘civilization’ – and rendering the person transporting her against her will away from her First Nations family as one of the heroes – I understand how this could be troublesome to some – but as I understand it, the plot reflects historical actions and beliefs, and to me the book is clear that Johanna is also a hero.

This is an adult western novel with perhaps the greatest number of non-white secondary characters that I have read (well, listened to) so far this year within my western genre reading, (One Bad Apple being intended for Young Adult audiences) and it is also notably unusual that Captain Kidd is over seventy years of age.

There is some violence in this story, but it is not particularly gruesome, and I expect the film could quite easily be made to a PG14 rating. (I haven’t checked it’s rating yet!)

I enjoyed this audiobook and look forward to seeing what the film adaption does with the story, although I don’t think this book will become one of my favourites of the year.

2 thoughts on “News of the World – Part One -Book Review”

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