News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In Texas, during the years following the Civil War, a 75-year-0ld printer who has lost his business, a casualty of war and its aftermath, travels the western part of the state giving readings from newspapers.  He rides into town, posts notices of his performance, and collects a dime from everyone who attends in an old paint can. All he does is stand in front of the crowd and read a selection of stories from several recent newspapers.

Did this really happen?  Is there historical evidence for such a thing?

There are no mention of this in the  notes from the author at the end of the book and most readers will be more interested in other aspects of this novel, but I hope this really is true.  It could be.  1870 was still the “wild west” in America.  Performances of any kind were almost always welcome in the smaller towns and settlements.  Even today people are willing to pay just to hear other people read something to them.

But for me this was a strange element to find in a western.  I was reminded of Hilary St. John Mandel’s recent novel Station Eleven about a travelling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic future.  Paulette Jiles’s reader travels through a post war Texas facing a series of threats not unfamiliar to readers of dystopian fiction: overly friendly townspeople,  a hostile gang of slave traders, an Indian attack, a dangerous city. The story could easily have become The Postman.

What makes News of the World great are two characters and some wonderful writing.  Besides Captain Kidd, the reader/printer mentioned above, there is Johanna Leonberger, a ten-year-old girl recently “rescued” from the Kiowa tribe who have had her since they kidnapped her at age six.

Johanna is wild, afraid of nearly everything she sees in what to her is a new world.  She remembers almost nothing of her white family.  She wants only to return to the Kiowa whom she considers her family.  It is very difficult for her to trust the white man whom she has been handed over to.

Captain Kidd has taken the job of returning Johanna to her family, an aunt and uncle several hundred miles to the south.  Along the way he and Johanna form a very tight bond. This story, how Johanna comes to trust Captain Kidd and how Captain Kidd comes to see Johanna as a daughter, give News of the World its heart.

I know I tend to get lost in inter-texual linking but I kept thinking of the 1998 Brazilian move Central Station about a bitter retired school teacher who takes an orphaned boy across Brazil to his father’s home.  It’s a wonderful movie by the way.  The performance by Fernanda Montenegro is one of the best you will ever see. She lost the Oscar, by the way, to Gwyneth Paltrow who won it for Shakespeare in Love.

There have been many stories about captive children returned from Native American tribes.  Some date back to just shortly after the arrive of Europeans in North America.  From what I’ve read they all seem to have certain things in common.  The children always adopt the tribe as family.  They forget white culture altogether including their language some in just a few years. They do not want to return to white culture.  They never see their native culture again.  They never completely re-adapt to their families.  I’ve only seen this story in “case studies”–stories about one person both fiction and non-fiction. I’d love to find a broader study on this topic.  Is this pattern the result of differences between how native people live and how white culture at the time lived? Or is it something about the nature of children who experience abduction through extreme violence.  Very often they have seen their parents and siblings killed as was the case with Johanna in News of the World.

I was expecting this story to end badly.  As I got closer to the end I began to fear what would happen to Johanna and to Captain Kidd for that matter.  Over the course of the novel I became very fond of both of them.  All I’ll say here is that there was a happy ending for both, one that was completely believable and satisfying.

Finally, a word about the writing. Not so much a word as a quote.  You can judge for yourself.

She put down the doll and shouted at the Indians with her hands around her mouth.  What could she possible think would happen? That they would come for her? She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed the water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps. They stood and stared across the water at her like creatures of the sidhe, wet and shining in every flash from overhead. They stood among their jack strawed tipi poles heaped on horses, drenched children gazing at her out of buffalo robes on the travois, the men ahead and at the side with their weapons wrapped in whatever would keep them dry.  One of them shouted back over the water. The lightning made them appear in every detail like an intaglio and then disappear and the reappear again.

I’ve gone on about News of the World long enough.  I loved it.  Go read it it.

Posted in American Fiction, Fiction, History, Novel, Western | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

This year I’ve been reading all ten of the Martin Beck mystery series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  All but one.  The Laughing Policeman was my first exposure to the Martin Beck Series.  I read it back in October of 2009.  While I decided not to re-read it, I did think it would be worth my while to re-read my review of it and to re-post my review just in case anyone out there is following me through of all ten Martin Beck books.  Looking back at my reviews to date, I’d have to say that The Laughing Policeman is probably the best in the series so far.

Late one rainy night in Stockholm, a gunman boards a double decker bus and kills everyone on board.  He leaves no clues behind.  No hint at his motive or identity.  Just victims.  And questions with no answers.

As soon as Superintendent Martin Beck of the Stockholm Homicide Squad begins his investigation he finds that one of the victims was a member of his own squad.  What was a homicide detective doing on a bus in that neighborhood at that time of night?  Is the murder somehow connected to him?  Was the dead detective, in fact, the killer’s target?

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is considered a classic of detective fiction, a prime example of the police procedural.  The book’s reputation is well deserved.  Sjowall and Wahloo populate their novel with characters that run the gamut of Stockholm society circa 1970.  A multiple murder, the worst on in Stockholm’s history, with random victims allows the authors to send their detectives into many  levels of society.  It’s surprising who one will find on a bus late at night.  Everyone has a story.

Of course, the investigation eventually takes the reader into Stockholm’s underworld.  If you think Scandinavia is a land of clean, well-ordered people, that’s not what you’ll find in The Laughing Policeman.  The dead detective was using his free time to investigate the murder of a sixteen-year-old Portuguese prostitute.  He hoped to solve this decade old case thereby making is reputation.  Now, his work is the only possible lead Beck has into his own murder.

The Laughing Policeman satisfies on several levels.  It is expertly plotted.  A crime without any clues is a tough place to start from, but the authors create a plot that remains entirely believable as it becomes more complicated.  The characters are all those one expects to find in a detective novel, but while familiar they are fully fleshed and likable–well, enjoyable if not always likable.  The prose, translated  from the Swedish by Alan Blair is as terse as it should be–to the point, no nonsense, full of dialogue that illustrates the procedure used to solve the crime.  There are no quirky characters in The Laughing Policeman.  If you want a mystery with recipes or funny next door neighbors, look elsewhere.

The Laughing Policeman gives the reader a glimpse into life in Sweden.  Not the life one will find in a guidebook.  Scandinavia looks like it may soon become the next big thing in literature, detective literature at least.  The other day I saw a counter display of Swedish mysteries at my local bookstore.  I’ve not read enough of them to say how important The Laughing Policeman is in the world of Scandinavian mystery novels.  I can say that it is an excellent book and a very entertaining read.


I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  Since then I have looked for another detective series that I could read start to finish. I’m open to suggestions, but I couldn’t find anything as good as the Martin Beck books.  

Posted in Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Scandenavian Fiction, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Tournament of Short Stories II: Elizabeth Hardwick vs. Raymond Carver

img_1676I know it’s a cop-out, but I can’t really pick a best this time.  Raymond Carver and Elizabeth Hardwick are both masters of the short story.  Anyone who loves the short story should read them both, read as much of them as you can.

For this round I read “A Season’s Romance” and “The Oak and the Axe” by Elizabeth Hardwick and “Where I’m Calling From” and “The Train” by Raymond Carver.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Elizabeth Hardwick was probably a minor character in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.   The Bell Jar is set in the fashion magazine world of New York in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Plath’s characters are all very smart, talented young women trying to find success in a world that is largely stacked against them.  Hardwick was probably the witty girl who sat next to Plath constantly telling stories about the people she met at the party last Saturday night.

Her characters live in this same world. They charm, they entertain, they keep a sardonic eye turned on the world and they have a dose of pathos underneath it all.  I’ve come to enjoy spending time with them very much.

Raymond Carver’s characters are just about polar opposites.  Since I’m putting characters from one author into the stories of another, I’d put Carver’s characters into the later work of Charles Bukowski, a fellow southern California writer.  Carver’s characters are outsiders, not the sort of people who make it in New York City.  There are quite a few drunks, working class blokes, people trying to hang on to what little they have with a healthy does of “California types” circa Bukowski’s Hollywood thrown in.

This time around, I confess, it was one too many characters with a drinking problem for me in “Where I’m Calling From.” I just was not in the mood.  But the second story, “The Train”,  a sequel to John Cheever’s wonderful short story “The Five Forty-Eight,” won me back into Carver’s camp.  In “The Train” the secretary who has just threatened to kill her boss after he has both dumped and fired her post affair goes back to the train station. There she waits for the next train back to the city with the only other two people in the station a strange elderly couple.

It’s one of those Carver stories where a set of disparate people meet under unusual circumstances.  Nothing seems to happen, except they all come to an understanding/epiphany.  They realize they are connected, have been connected for a long time, though they never knew each other before now.  I was reminded of “A Small, Good Thing” from earlier in the book.

So who wins this round? Who advances to the finals?  Who do I want to read more of right now?

I only have three stories left to go in the Carver book.  There are seven more in the Hardwick.  So, since there is just the one final round left, I’m going to go with Raymond Carver.  I’ve enough stories left in the Hardwick to enter it in The Tournament of Short Stories III.


Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Short Story | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Homecoming by Cynthia Voight

Homecoming by Cynthia Voight is the story of four children on their own. The oldest, Dicey Tillerman who is still young enough to pass as a boy when she needs to, leads her three siblings on a cross country journey in search of a home.  They must face this journey alone after their unstable mother abandons them in a car outside of a large shopping mall while on the way to the home of their great aunt.  She never returns.

It’s clear that Dicey has been covering for their mother for some time.  She immediately takes charge of the situation, keeping the younger children in line, dividing tasks between herself and her brother James who’s just a year or so younger than she is.  Dicey hopes that their mother will return as soon as this latest spell is over, but she also fears that the police will find them and separate them.  She wants her mother back, but even more than that she wants to keep her family together.  So when it begins to get dark and her mother still has not returned, she decides to abandon the car and walk to their great aunt’s house, though it’s a trip that will take several weeks and they have just over ten dollars between them.

What follows is a terrific survival story.  Ms. Voight knows what she is talking about here.  The details of how the children survive, earn money, get food, find shelter and eventually find their great aunt’s home are completely realistic.  (If you had to run away from home with only a few dollars to you name in 1981 when the book was written, this book could have been your field guide.)   There are no flights of fancy here, no unexplained or surprise rescuers, no helpful coincidences that appear out of no where to save the day.  Dicey is simply too determined to fail.  Her siblings recognize this and stick to her side through thick and thin.  She does not disappoint them.

Homecoming is more or less officially a young adult novel, but it should be seen as a young adult novel in the same sense that To Kill a Mockingbird is a young adult novel.  Put a more sophisticated cover on it, take off the references to the Newberry Medal and you have a novel about children written for all audiences.  Ms. Voight never talks down to her audience, never makes things easy for them, but she does write a compelling tale.  All of the characters, even the minor ones, are as richly drawn as any you’ll find in an “adult” novel.  Motivations are complicated here.  People try to do the right thing by each other only to find both the giver and the receiver of charity are too complicated to make even the most generous act go smoothly.  It’s not that no good deed goes unpunished, but no good deed is easy to swallow.

One thing that sets Homecoming above other novels like this is that once the children find a home, their great aunt’s house, they also find that it is not really what they were looking for.   Most writers would end their stories at the doorstep of their destination with a happy and satisfying reunion.  Ms. Voight could have done so and still had an excellent novel.  Instead, Dicey, her sister and her brothers find they have such a difficult time fitting in that they must consider taking to the road again, this time to look for the grandmother they never knew, one whom their mother rarely had a kind word for.

Homecoming is the first of a series of six books about the Tillerman family.  I don’t know how I managed to teach middle school English for almost 20 years and never read it, but I’m certainly glad one of my student book clubs finally gave it a chance.  The girls who read it are glad they did, too.  They plan on reading the next book later this month.  I’m looking forward to it.  Homecoming by Cynthia Voight comes with our highest recommendation.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. some years ago.  Unfortunately, neither I nor my students ever got around to reading the second book in the series.  That said, I still give Homecoming my highest recommendation.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Novel, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Three things.

First Ben H. Winters’ new novel Underground Airlines certainly works as a thriller.  Fans of his earlier series The Last Policeman will not be disappointed, though there may be a certain sense of de ja vu.

While Underground Airlines is set in an alternative America, one where slavery never completely ended, the main character an escaped slave forced by a government agency to hunt down other escaped slaves, is remarkable similar to Detective Hank Palace, the titular character in The Last Policeman.  While Palace wanted his job, what struck me about him was his dogged instance on playing things by the book, enforcing the law of the land even when the end of the world was approaching.  What mattered to him was doing the work. Victor, the escaped slave turned slave hunter, does not want to do the work, which is why he is so by the book in his approach.  He never gets involved in the lives of those he captures, never lets himself care.  He cannot escape his job, nor can he do it badly without going back into slavery himself.  So he concentrates on his work. He is the best at what he does.

Because of this, he is assigned a very difficult case, one that contains secrets within secrets.  Mr. Winters uses his detective story to explore his alternate America like may science fiction authors before him have done.  What makes Underground Airlines work as a thriller is that this particular case reveals things Victor never expected to be true.  Even Victor who has survived slavery, tracked down many escaped slaves and sent them back to “The Hard Four,” the four remaining slaves states, never really understood the terrible situation in America.

Second, Underground Airlines works as a character study that raises serious, uncomfortable questions.  There are several points in the novel where the reader must wonder just what he would do if he were in Victor’s shoes.  We want to judge him, to condemn him for sending ‘free’ people back to what he knows will be death by hard labor, but once we know his true situation we cannot.  We’d probably do the same thing if we were going to be honest about it.  It’s not comfortable reading.img_1675

He’s a complicated, interesting character, Victor.  It’s too bad this novel appears to be a one-off, no sequels planned as far as I know.  The ending basically ends the story as far as I can tell.

Third the book says something about America today without really saying anything about America today.  The setting is radically different, but it still feels a bit too much like home. There’s no direct commentary on contemporary America, but too many things feel uncomfortably close to factual.  It’s difficult not to look at America differently afterwards. It’s disconcerting.  It should feel much more impossible than it does.

Instead, reading Underground Airlines made me think just how close this situation came to being true.



Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments