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An Old West tale saddles up in 'News of the World'

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Author Paulette Jiles
Author Paulette Jiles in the MPR studios October 2016. Jiles is a poet, a memoirist, and a bestselling novelist, whose recent work has focused on stories to do with the old West.
Euan Kerr | MPR News File

Paulette Jiles believes many of the stories of the Wild West have yet to be told.

Her latest novel, "News of the World," is about an elderly man who makes his living by touring and doing readings from newspapers. His life changes when he's asked to bring home a girl kidnapped by a tribal raiding party.

Paulette Jiles’ novel, “News of the World”
Book illustration for Paulette Jiles' novel "News of the World."
Courtesy of Harper Collin

Jiles, a poet, memoirist and best-selling novelist, has lived in Canada, Mexico and around the United States. She loves delving into historical archives and hearing the stories people tell about their ancestors.

That's how she came across Captain Kidd, the great-grandfather of a friend's husband. Kidd made his living as a traveling newsreader touring communities in the Old West.

"And I said, 'Just going around reading newspapers?' And he said, 'Yeah, in whatever community building was available. He'd charge a dime, and he'd try to get newspapers from as far away as possible, so the news was enchanting and it was almost like folk tales or fairy tales to people.'"

Jiles also knew many stories of settlers captured by tribal raiding parties, particularly children. Often, if they were not rescued quickly, they integrated into the tribe and were reluctant to return. 

Jiles pours all of this into "News of the World." It's a short, potent novel built around a retired Civil War veteran she calls Captain Kidd. He's touring Texas as a newsreader in 1870. Jiles reads from the book a passage in which an old friend approaches Kidd with "a problem." 

"She seemed to be about 10 years old, dressed in the horse Indian's manner in a deerskin shift with four rows of elk teeth sewn across the front. A thick blanket was pulled over her shoulders. Her hair was the color of maple sugar and in it she wore two down puffs bound onto a lock of her hair by their minute spines and also bound with a thin thread was a wing feather from a golden eagle slanting between them. She sat perfectly composed, wearing the feather and a necklace of glass beads as if they were costly ornaments. Her eyes were blue and her skin that odd color that occurs when fair skin has been burned and weathered by the sun. She had no more expression than an egg."

Kidd is offered $50 to take her back to her family, 400 miles away. It's lawless country and Kidd is reluctant. So is she, but for different reasons. Her name is Johanna, although she doesn't respond to that name. She considers herself Kiowa.

"She was taken at the age of 6, and she has lost the English language," said Jiles. "Refuses to wear shoes, and she hates her dresses and she wants to go home. She wants to go back to the people she considers her mother and father. So he's got that to deal with as well."

Johanna keeps trying to escape. But Kidd knows the Kiowa won't take her back. That's because the Indian agents are threatening the tribes with cutting rations and sending in the cavalry if they don't return captives. He decides to take Johanna to her relatives despite the dangers — including from her.

"He has to protect the child, while she doesn't want to be protected," said Jiles. "And she's a good shot, too!"

"News of the World" took several years to write, because Jiles set it aside a number of times.  She talked about a moment when Kidd and Johanna are chased by murderous criminals.

"I stopped because I didn't know how I was going to get them out of it," she said. "So I left it for about six months, because I was afraid to touch it. You know, when you are building something very delicate, and all of a sudden you think, 'This looks really good,' and you are afraid to go an inch further because you are going to mess it up. So just wait."

But she got it finished and the book has been warmly received. In fact, it's been short listed for the National Book Award for fiction. She says she's a little stunned by the nomination.

"This is a very important award, very important, and I'm just really happy," she said.

Jiles intends to keep telling her Western tales. She delights in research and particularly in mining the oral histories collected by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. She's found many personal stories, dating back to the 1870s, that differ greatly from the Wild West tales told by Hollywood. 

"They are all online," she said. "And if you read carefully through those stories you will find a much different perspective than is taken by people who sometimes tend to be a bit academic, and maybe a bit urban. But they tell sometimes very odd stories, very strange stories," she said.

And all potential fodder for a Paulette Jiles book.