Captain Jefferson Kidd travels around from small town to small town, like Cyrano de Bergerac, reading from newspapers and sharing the news of the world with those who pay a dime for the privilege of listening to him read it. Newspapers were scarce then and not everyone could read. For some it was a social event, and for some it was a time to raise a ruckus. Once, the captain had his own printing press, but the wars during his lifetime had taken their toll. He had lived seven decades, and he missed both his deceased wife and his former newsman’s life. His two daughters lived in Georgia, where the Civil War had also altered their lifestyles. They did not have the money to rejoin him in his home town in Texas, but he hoped they would some day soon.
During his travels, he arrived in a town and noticed the same man he had seen at his last couple of readings. He wondered why he had been following him. The man, soon revealed his reason. Britt Johnson*, asked the captain to take a child back to her German relatives. He offered him the $50 gold coin he was given for the task, because he said the child was belligerent and white. He did not think, as a black man, that he could guarantee her safety or his own. The child had been kidnapped at the age of six. She witnessed the death of both her parents and her younger sister who were murdered by the Kiowa. Now, after four years, she had forgotten her past and fully identified with the Indian tribe more than with her own true biological background. The captain agreed to take Johanna home to an aunt and uncle because, although he was old and the journey would be hard, he felt it was the right thing to do. How he managed to get Johanna to her relatives and what he learned about them, was the crux of the novel.
As they traveled together, they both learned more about life from each other. Just as the captain tried to help Johanna adjust to the more civilized world, this precocious child showed him how comfortable it was to live in the more savage world of her last four years. She was a survivor and she became a great help to him. She was resourceful, intuitive, precocious and far more mature than her years.
Soon, although the child and the captain were burdened with their memories, they learned how to comfort each other and fulfill each other’s need for affection and someone to trust. The story of their travels and relationship was both interesting and exciting to read as the lawlessness and danger of the territories began to surface on each page. The author’s description of the time and place made the reader feel right in the thick of it. How they survived and moved off into the future was simply a good story. However, the writing style was unusual because no quotations were used to delineate speech from pure narrative which sometimes led to confusion. Also, it was difficult to tell which parts of the story were based on real history and which were based on the author’s imagination.
*Britt Johnson is the stuff of legends. A hero, Johnson was the slave of Moses Johnson who freed him and gave him money enabling him to rescue his own family from the Indians.
"Outside, an hour later, Quoyle at his fire, the aunt taking things out of the food box; eggs, a crushed bag of bread, butter, jam. Sunshine crowded against the aunt, her hands following, seizing packets. The child unwrapped the butter, the aunt spread it with a piece of broken wood for a knife, stirred the shivering eggs in the pan. The bread heel for the old dog. Bunny at the landwash, casting peckled stones. As each struck, foaming lips closed over it."
"They sat beside the fire. The smoky stingo like an offering from some stone altar, the aunt thought, watched the smolder melt into the sky. Bunny and Sunshine leaned against Quoyle. Bunny ate a slice of bread rolled up, the jelly poised at the end like the eye of a toaster oven, watched the smoke gyre."
It's all there in the quotation, pulled pretty much at random from the pages of this novel. Short, choppy fragments of sentences. Highly specific and unexpected physical detail. Metaphor and simile that more often than not cause a double-take. The occasional very odd word.
In some ways, the distinctive language of this book overpowers the rest of it for me. It's not that the characters aren't interesting - they are - nor that the book lacks incident - it most certainly does not! There is death, cultural discovery, peril in the wildness of nature, a gruesome revelation and even a miraculous resurrection (oh, and a lowish-key love story). But in the end, I enjoyed it but never felt fully drawn in, and I attribute that in large part to the idiosyncratic narrative. It's as if I were constantly dancing on the surface of the language, exploring it - and that was certainly enjoyable! - but I never fell deeply enough into it, past all those fleeting physical observations and curious insights, to really care about Quoyle, or his bratty kids, or "the aunt", brave and resourceful though she was.
I don't know if that really amounts to a serious criticism - it may just mean that this book had virtues different from the ones I usually remark on.
Some people have all the luck—the bad luck. And in this book, they find each other. The writing is so good and the characters so engaging, it didn’t matter in the long run that I occasionally wondered if that many bad things could really happen to people in close proximity with each other. Oddly enough, in such a feast of disasters, there’s also humor—not funny incidents, but perspectives on life and events as seen through the characters’ eyes. I loved teenaged Regina (Reggie) Chase, the ultimate plucky, spunky kid, but not a stereotype. I’d have followed her anywhere, no matter what the plot.
A couple of aspects of the mystery felt a little loose or not quite realistic. There was the matter of one man having another's driver’s license and not his own after nearly dying in a train crash. No one follows up on his missing credit cards or license for a long time. I kept thinking, “What about his credit cards?” and felt relieved when someone finally thought of it. A final twist in one of the layers of the romantic subplot struck me as impossible to pull off in the 21st century, though it probably could have been done fifty years ago, and an aspect of the mystery plot was deliberately left unexplained, something for the reader to figure out, with only a hint as to how it might have happened. Figuring it out would have meant going back through the book and piecing together the timelines of events and clarifying where the affected characters were at various times. The book was due back at the library, so I didn’t do this. (Maybe I’m dense and other readers got the explanation right away.) I wonder if the author felt the book was getting too long and decided the only way to tie up this thread was to dangle a hint about it, or if the unfinished, unexplained aspect was intentional, a secret one of the characters successfully kept from the police.
A narrative device that I had mixed feelings about was showing a scene in one character’s point of view, ending it, and then switching to a short recap from another POV as the transition to the next scene. I understand the urge to do that, but there are ways to suggest conflicting perceptions without retelling. I don’t mean omniscient head hopping, but choosing the POV of the person with the most at stake and then letting subtle details of expression or behavior on the part of the non-POV character imply what they might be thinking and feeling. This transition technique was not done too often, but it jumped out at me as something a writer would have to be famous and well-established to get away with. Others would be advised to pick up the pace.
Five stars for characters, dialogue and setting and three stars for plot=four.