Sometimes, when the gloomy news is too much for us, we take a break from our lives and escape into historical fiction.
Two enjoyable historical novels recently filled the bill for me: Paulette Jiles’s News of the World, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016, and Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel historical novel, Outlander. Although these rip-roaring reads have little in common plot-wise, there is a sweetness to the main characters that we don’t often see in real life.
Last year Janet Maslin of The New York Times listed News of the World, a literary Western, as one of her Best Books of the Year. It is the story of a white girl captured by the Indians who does not want to return to her white family. I am familiar with this issue through two of the award-winning Conrad Richter’s novels: in junior high we read Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest, the story of a white boy returned unwillingly to his white family and determined to return to the Indians. And this year I discovered Richter’s less well-known. but much better novel, A Country of Strangers, about a young white woman, Stone Girl, taken unwillingly from her Indian family with her son –and then, tragically, they are not accepted by her white family.
Jiles has a unique take on the situation: the novel is set in Texas in 1870, after the Civil War, and told from the point-of-view of 71-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the War of 1812 and Taft’s war in Mexico, and a witness of the dissension caused by the Civil War. Captain Kidd, a former printer, now makes his living traveling around northern Texas giving readings from newspapers. On the frontier, people are starved for news, and he crafts the readings carefully, starting with hard news and ending up with exotic stories about foreign places they’ll never visit.
But his life has recently “seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled,” and he is weary of people’s emotions. And then Britt Johnson, a free black man, whose wife and children were captured by Indians and then rescued by him, asks a favor. He offers Kidd $50 to escort a 10-year-old white captive girl, who was recovered by the U.S. Army after four years among the Kiowa, back to her aunt and uncle in a small town near San Antonio. The Captain is reluctant. He knows these things don’t turn out well. He says,
Maybe she should go back to the Indians….
Britt said, The Kiowa don’t want her. They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive girl gets you run down by the cav. The agent said Bring all the captives in or he was cutting off their rations and sending the Twelfth and Ninth after them. They brought her in and sold her for fifteen Hudson Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware. They’ll beat it up into bracelets. It was Aperian Crow’s band brought her in. Her mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile.
And so the Captain agrees to make the journey. Joanna, whose Kiowa name is Cicada, is at first contemptuous of the old man. When she tries to escape and signals to Kiowa across the river, they shoot at her, obviously unaware this white girl is one of their tribe. The Captain saves Joanna, from this and other dangerous situations. But, surprisingly, Joanna saves the Captain just as often as he saves her. When three men corner them and he runs out of ammunition, Joanna finds a substitute!
The dialogue is enchanting, conducted partly through signs, partly through the English he slowly teaches her. She calls him Kontah, Indian for Grandfather. And her study of English is charming and touching. Cho-henna clepp hants. (Joanna clap hands.) Cho-henna laff-a. (Joanna laugh.) Soon she can count to 100.
Will they ever reach heir destination?
All I can tell you is the ending is unexpected.
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Is Outlander the Game of Thrones for women?
You’ve probably read Outlander, the first in Gabaldon’s series of time-travel historical novels, or at least seen the TV series. I recently watched the first season on DVD and fell in love with the gorgeous scenery and the strong, intelligent heroine, Claire, and the hero, Jamie. Aren’t Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) the most endearing TV couple ever?
And then I turned to the entertaining, plot-heavy novel, Outlander, a kind of Perils of Pauline for intelligent women. The charming, beautiful Claire, a nurse during World War II, is on vacation in Scotland with her husband, Frank Randall, a historian. While gathering plants next to a ring of standing stones in Scotland, she is somehow transported to 18th-century Scotland, where she wakes up to see a man who looks exactly like Frank. Alas, he is not her husband, but his vicious ancestor, Black Jack Randall, a sadistic British officer. When Jamie, a young red-haired Scot with a price on his head, rescues Claire from Randall, it is the beginning of a friendship that leads to a marriage of convenience. Claire proves herself as a healer, and makes friends among the Scots. She and Jamie rescue one another from Black Jack Randall repeatedly. Claire is tried as a witch! And in one thrilling chapter, Claire actually wrestles and kills a wolf in her attempt to rescue Jamie from prison.
Claire and Jamie are in love, and they have frequent sex. It’s charming the first time, then you get a little jaded. But the actors’ angelically happy faces bear witness to the role of great sex in a happy marriage.
Well, it’s great fun. I’m happy to have finally joined the Outlander fans.
I love good historical fiction, and finally I persuaded myself (or it’s true) despite some manifest flaws, Gabaldon has a rich informed imaginative series of works focusing on mid-18th century Scotland. I have been told too many times (and recently this weekend at a JASNA) that it falls off in Voyager. The core is the Jamie-Claire relationship and I admit (openly) it’s that that makes the deep appeal to me. I am also finding the mini-series superbly well done.
What I want to read is more American-set historical fiction. There’s one by Bobbie Ann Mason I know I should read next … but you should see my piles of TBR books and projects — let alone commitments on teaching, papers, listservs …. And I try to go out so as not to feel immured alone.
I very much enjoyed the first book of Outlander, but certainly it was the TV series that inspired me. Yes, Gabaldon has written intelligent pop books, and whether I shall get through the whole series probably depends on how much the TV series covers! I do think the actors are perfect as Claire and Jamie.
On Wed, Oct 11, 2017 at 7:27 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
I ought to see if the mini series is available in the UK. I tried an audiobook version of Outlander and thought I would die of boredom. However, so many of my bookish friends are completely in love with the series. If I watch a TV version at least I would know what they are talking about.
The TV series is breathtaking! And Simon Callow steals every scene in an episode in the first season.
On Wed, Oct 11, 2017 at 9:46 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
Sometimes we need to move away from the classic and heavier books and just go for something that gives us joy and helps us escape for a while. Usually classic crime for me, but I’m glad that you found some titles that took you away from reality briefly! 🙂
Yes, I’ve read Jean Plaidy and you know it! Paulette Jiles’ book is more literary, and was reviewed as such, but it seemed more like pop fiction to me. As for Outlander, it’s outrageously fun!
On Wed, Oct 11, 2017 at 10:01 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
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