Set against an atmospheric backdrop of a rough and nearly lawless East Texas near the end of the Civlil War, Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles is a story of overcoming hardship, taking chances and following your dreams no matter what.
Simon Boudin is a gifted fiddler that has been dogged by hard luck. He scrapes together a living by playing at dodgy taverns scattered through the wild west. By March of 1865 he has managed to avoid conscription into either army, but his luck runs out when his volatile temper gets the better of him and he gets into a bar fight. Hauled off to jail, he is picked up by the Confederate Army and forced into service. Because he is a fiddler and a very good one, he is put into the regimental band and manages to mostly avoid harm.
Just as the Civil War is winding down, Simon and his rag-tag band are sent to play for a victorious Union colonel who is throwing a party for the officers and their families from both the North and the South. It is here that Simon meets Doris, an Irish servant indentured to work for the colonel and his family. Although their meeting is brief, Simon and Doris make a connection. Driven apart by their duties – Simon sent away with the Army, Doris leaving with the colonel – they spend the next many months working to find each other again. Doris is miserable and feeling trapped as a servant while Simon struggles to save enough money from the jobs he and his band can find, enough to buy some land and make a life with Doris.
Through many obstacles – poverty, Yellow Fever, lawlessness, abject cruelty – there is also strength through friendship, a helping hand and the belief in love. While this is a slower read than Jile’s popular (and excellent) previous book News of the World, this book has the power to draw you in, to root for characters that are flawed but striving for something better, to morn their loses and cheer their triumphs.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels throughout north Texas, reading aloud news articles of interest to the small, scattered communities of a still very wild West. The year is 1870. The Captain has lived through three wars and has no desire to see another, keeping to himself except to collect coins earned from his readings, remembering the past but always moving forward, forever restless.
One day the Captain is given $50 in gold to return a 10-year-old girl back to her only living relatives, a 400 mile journey through hostile, difficult country. Taken by the Kiowa after they killed her parents and little sister four years earlier, Johanna has forgotten how to speak English, has no knowledge of white people’s rules and manners and wants nothing more than to return to her Kiowa family.
Gradually, with patience and kindness and shared hardship, Johanna and the Captain learn to trust each other. The Captain helps Johanna re-learn English and tries to reintroduce her to the white man’s world. Johanna becomes a fierce defender of the Captain, loyal against impossible odds.
When they finally reach their destination and the Captain delivers Johanna to her only living blood relatives, he realizes that she is viewed as an unwanted burden and that her life with them will be harsh and abusive. Can he leave them with her white family, or will he find another way to rescue her?
A wonderful, complex book, News of the World frequently reminded me of Lonesome Dove (although much shorter) – an epic journey across difficult terrain through a mostly lawless land where an individual must depend solely on his own resolve and resources. Kindness and softness are in short supply, danger lurks everywhere and the weak are not given any allowance. The Captain is a wonderful character – intelligent, thoughtful and authoritative, he has a sly, dry wit and a kind heart that he keeps carefully hidden. Johanna, nearly silent at first, gradually adapts and even thrives in the circumstances she’s been thrown into – her resilience is remarkable. A lovely book about the human spirit set against a wild, untamed landscape. Highly recommended.