56 pages 1 hour read

Paulette Jiles

News of the World

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Paulette Jiles’s novel, News of the World, tells the tale of 72-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger's journey from Wichita, Texas to Castroville, Texas in 1870, and how that journey would forever and drastically change the course of each of their lives.

The story begins in Wichita, Texas, in the early spring of 1870, with Captain Kidd hanging posters advertising his reading of the news. He travels the state reading newspapers to people who live in remote areas and do not have access to the outside world. While in town he meets with an old acquaintance of his, Britt Johnson. Johnson has been hired by Johanna's aunt and uncle in southern Texas to transport her safely back to them, but because of the difficulty of the route, and the fact that Johanna is of European descent, and he and his companions are African American, he does not feel secure traveling with her through post-war Texas. Therefore, he asks Captain Kidd if he will take over the responsibility, which, with some reluctance, he accepts.

Captain Kidd and Johanna's journey is not an easy one. Post-war Texas is still recovering from the effects of the Civil War and especially from Reconstruction. Large tracts of the state are still frontier in nature and raids by bandits, and especially Indian tribes like the Kiowa and Comanche, are not uncommon. The Captain, however, is a man who is not unaccustomed to danger and warfare, having fought at the tender age of 16 during the War of 1812 (during which he also acquired the moniker, Captain, as he was later elected to that rank). The fact that Johanna does not speak English, and he knows only a few signs of Plains Indian Sign Language (and only a few words of Kiowa), make communication between the two difficult. Johanna, though of German descent, does not identify as white; rather, she is far more Kiowa than anything else.

Along the route to Castroville, a small town near San Antonio, where Johanna's relatives reside, the Captain does his best to earn much needed funds with his readings while also trying to teach Johanna English and prepare her for reintegration into white, European-American society. Many troubles lie for them along the road: dealing with Indians, men who wish to do harm to Johanna(which results in a gunfight and the display of Johanna's ingenuity in using dimes as shotgun pellets), the political turmoil of Texas, the natural elements, and the societal difficulties associated with Johanna's reintegration. For example, when Johanna bathes in a town's river naked and is chased around by a woman who wants to get her clothed and “proper,” or when Johanna steals two chickens, unfamiliar with the idea of pets or property.

The Captain is a kind and long-suffering man who is sympathetic to Johanna's plight. Along the route, Johanna comes to see him as her guardian, even calling him Kontah (grandpa in Kiowa). The further they travel, the better her English becomes. They learn to work together; Johanna eventually joins the Captain during his readings and collects the dimes that everyone is supposed to pay as admission, being very skilled at making sure everyone pays. They grow fond of one another, which makes parting difficult.

As the story draws towards its end, and as the Captain and Johanna arrive in the small village of D'Hanis, near Castroville, the Captain meets a man along the route whom he engages to ask for directions. He also asks the man to announce Johanna's return to Wilhelm and Anna Leonberger. The man, Adolph, is a fellow German and rushes to deliver the news, ecstatic to hear of her survival. Once they arrive, however, there is no emotion on Wilhelm's face, and he behaves as though Johanna's return is simply a business deal. The Captain remains for a while to see to Johanna's transition, and learns that the Leonbergers are not kind or even well-liked people. Adolph eventually tells him that he should not leave Johanna with them. This places him in a dilemma. His honor and moral code do not allow him to just take her away. He made a promise to return her, and accepted money to do so.

He leaves for his home in San Antonio, but he cannot forget Johanna. He even goes so far as investigating adoption laws. Even though the outlook is bleak for legal recourse, it only takes him one day in San Antonio before he makes his decision to return to D'Hanis in order to reason or bribe the Leonbergers into taking better care of Johanna. He leaves the next morning.

As he comes up to the Leonberger farmhouse, he espies Johanna in the distance, tending to some chores. He calls out to her. The Leonbergers have been beating her. He tells her to drop what she is doing and come with him. Johanna is very happy and more than willing to leave with him. The love that grew between them over their long journey is not a connection that can easily be broken.

The final chapter of the story summarizes the remainder of not only Johanna's and the Captain's lives, but also that of a few of the more important, secondary characters. Johanna becomes a proper southern belle through the Captain's love and kindness, though she will forever remain Kiowa at heart, a woman who enjoys the freedom of nature. She eventually marries a man whom she accompanies on cattle drives. The Captain lives a few more years and when he dies, his will states that he wants to be buried with his runner’s medal that he received during the War of 1812, that “he had a message to deliver, contents unknown” (209).