Reading during a pandemic can feel like a lifeline or leaking boat, depending upon what we’re reading and where we’re anchoring our sense of safety. For me, reading (even badly written opinion pieces that pass themselves off as fact) is one of my primary sources of meaningful perspective – at least I know what we’re up against along the intellectual divide when I read pseudo-journalism and its fear-based pieces that often read like SNL parodies of Naomi Klein’s terrifying predictions in The Shock Doctrine.
Omnivorous reading along with the kinesthetic pleasures of learning by doing have increased in value as I age. Some things, of course, I am unable to learn by doing. One of these, delivering a child taken from her German parents by Kiowa, and then taken a second time from her Kiowa people by the army to be returned to her remaining relatives, all before her eleventh birthday, is one experiential adventure impossible for me to know first hand. This child’s story, unfolding as it does in the wilds of Texas soon after the conclusion of the civil war – a lawless and terrifying time by all accounts – adds to my relief in learning of the narrative’s twists and dangerous turns through reading rather than through experience.
The mysterious nature of fiction continues to astound me. For example, Paulette Jiles couldn’t know in 2016 when News of the World was published of the violence to come on January 6, 2021, violence her wondrous story puts into meaningful context. Nor could Margaret Atwood know with certainty of the attempted coup in Washington on that date and it s terrifying similarities to her fictional Gilead and its lockdown of the human mind, heart, and imagination when she published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Sensitivity to world events and thorough research no doubt supports the prescience of both writers, allowing us to speculate that both knew as they wrote their tales of the probability, if not the actual facts, of events to come. Their attunement to the danger of our times and their diligent research are why reading great fiction remains a source of deep and wide pleasure for so many of us. Such fiction’s relevance to our political and spiritual well being is also why we value the Humanities with its vast cartography of human strengths, weaknesses, and potential for kindness and cruelty in equal measure.
While Jiles employs an omniscient narrator, she holds Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd as the focal point for her story’s unfolding. His voice is the novel’s voice, and, at the same time, it is decency’s voice. One can imagine the moment when filmmaker Paul Greengrass, reading this novel for the first time, said, “I can imagine Tom Hanks saying these words.” The actor’s projected qualities seem channeled by Jiles into Kidd, a character who lives decades before the actor’s birth. Those of us who read live for such moments of connection.
In times when indecency is celebrated, we also live for stories about decency. Paul Greengrass and Paulette Jiles share a deep respect for decent men like Captain Kidd. In these times of flagrant indecency, their obvious admiration for decency is balm to the wounds of our shared Soul during this time when the words of hucksters and out-and-out predators blare constantly. We are under siege by the war of words informing the false narrative of a binary reality. Great novelists, and filmmakers, call a halt to this siege for the time we spend in their explorations of complexity, their thoughtfulness, and their possible futures when emotional maturity will melt away the either/or energies of these challenging, high-risk, crazed-adolescent times.
The pandemic continues to make film going risky, but books, and this book in particular, are readily available in bookstores and on line. This book tells an important story, of many losses, to Kidd, to the girl Johanna, to the country itself. Even more important, this novel tells of the remedies for these losses. Love, always love, and the way we learn to act on it, to trust it, to share it, to generate more and more and more of it, along with a mature sense of responsibility as we exercise our many freedoms, these are the remedies for the challenges depicted in this tale, challenges uncannily similar to those unfolding in our own time.
Jiles’ story is simple: A grizzled former soldier who loves words, and ink, and stories, carries the news of the world to the isolated inhabitants of a post-war, meaning-starved world. As he executes this duty, one filled with small joys and deep meaning for him, he meets a man who has a child who must be delivered to her original people far to the south. And since there is no other decent man to undertake this difficult and dangerous work, this well seasoned news reader takes the child as he does his news stories, tenderly, reverently, into his vibrant heart. And there, against all odds, she thrives.
The world is full of fatherless children. Captain Kidd, however, has well-fathered daughters for whom he has been a constant throughout their lives. Grown when the narrative begins, these women and their families are learning what they must in other parts of the world. By contrast, the child Johanna is both motherless and fatherless, and wild, and raging, and hopeless. Although reluctant to accept the duty to return her to her original family, Captain Kidd commits to the task, along the way finding the inner resources necessary to address this child’s deep psychological injuries with respect and understanding. Because he steps into his best self, as it appears he has been doing throughout his life, we are immersed in an alternative world in which decency prevails. As the story unfolds, his thoughts and actions enliven our own best selves.
Long ago, the Indigenous Peoples of the world often lived in small groups, in isolation, sustainably manifesting a way of life that created culture as well as progeny. Called by the sun and the moon and the changing of the seasons, these individual groups journeyed to sacred meeting places – perhaps in a wood, or by a river, or on a plain or mountaintop – and there they shared tools, and food, and stories of what life has been like in their separate worlds. In sharing their tales at these sacred gatherings, they created a new reality – news of a different world – one in which their separate existences fit into a whole that could not be imagined separately because it was so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Despite the constantly blaring, nihilistic words of hucksters and predators, our best storytellers have become our storied, sacred meeting spaces. In their pages, we meet to share the discoveries of a much larger world than our individual experiences could possibly envision, and, like Johanna, we slowly return to trust. I am glad to imagine meeting other readers here, on the banks of this tale of decency and love and trust. I sense it is a place many have been hungering for, dreaming about, yearning toward as we beat away the swarms of lies, cruel hoaxes, and false narratives that inflame the immature and indecent men and women of our contemporary world. In her pages we are invited to experience an alternate reality, one animated by decency, responsibility, and wisdom, as well as love. It is a sacred place indeed, and in meeting within its pages, we are infinitely richer.
Until next time