The fictional Johanna Leonberger of Paulette Jiles’ book “News of the World” represents hundreds of Americans who were taken captive or simply became part of First Nations people in the early days of this country.
Jiles’ book, the 2017-18 Galveston Reads selection, includes page-turning examples of courage in extreme circumstances. The book reflects the grammatical format of the time; no quotation marks indicate the spoken words of the characters.
However, it is not difficult to follow the experience of Johanna, the 10-year-old German-Texan daughter of a couple killed during a Kiowa raid near Castroville.
The story weaves a portrait of courage — Johanna’s and that of 71-year-old Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who accepts the job of returning her to her remaining family.
The 1870s journey is fraught with challenges but full of a developing love between the grandfatherly captain and the resourceful Johanna. They face marauding bandits, hostile cavalry and religious zealots. The obstacles represent the prejudices and dangers of the times.
The book’s one weakness is that the voice of a First Nations person is expressed through that of an assimilated European. But perhaps that is part of the point of the story — through adoption, exposure, association and marriage, we become more than our antecedents.
But the story is more than an example of strength in the face of impossible challenges. The story is a statement about the importance of identity and of family.
People you adopt as family can be more like family than your own flesh and blood. It is clear that Johanna adopts first her Kiowa family and then, slowly, Captain Kidd.
I recently visited Castroville, a quaint town about 20 miles west of San Antonio.
Unlike other towns on major highways, Castroville is full of buildings that were in existence when the fictional Johanna was taken captive.
Her story is not unlike that of some boys who were taken captive at about the same time that Johanna’s story takes place.
It’s easy to see by looking at the expansive spaces and rolling hills how children could be stolen. It is also easy to understand how a little girl might find it daunting to reclaim a society that she has given up in the interest of survival.
Johanna’s story is about the nature of survival, the strength of the human spirit and the forming of identity in a country rich in diversity.
We often hear Johanna’s voice: “My name is Cicada. My father’s name is Turning Water. My mother’s name is Three Spotted. I want to go home.”
She reluctantly travels with Captain Kidd, whose job is traveling from settlement to town reading the news to people who pay a dime to listen.
Slowly, the Captain and Johanna form a bond. She grows from the stoic character who misses her Kiowa parents to a resourceful warrior who helps Kidd load shotgun shells with dimes to fight bandits to a typical 10-year-old, forming silly sentences as she learns English.
It’s a touching story of the resilience of children and the ways in which we all create family from those we grow to love.
For more about this Galveston Reads selection, see Galvestonreads.org or call the Rosenberg Library at 409-763-8844.