The Quick Recap and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for News of the World by Paulette Jiles are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of News of the World by Paulette Jiles.
In News of the World, in 1870, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a veteran who makes a living traveling across small towns in North Texas, reading out news stories to audiences for a dime per person. He feels a little bored and depressed about his life. In Wichita Falls, he agrees to escort home a ten-year-old white girl who has been recaptured from the Kiowa (Native Americans). The girl speaks only Kiowa, and her remaining family, an aunt and uncle, are German and live near San Antonio.
On the road, Kidd names the girl Johanna. They come across soldiers who roam the state. Texas currently in the midst of the Reconstruction and is under military rule. In Spanish Fort, Johanna goes missing while Kidd does a reading. Kidd finds her near a river, shouting out to a passing Native American tribe, though the tribesmen can't hear her over the roar of the river. Kidd grabs her, and they leave.
Kidd is an veteran of multiple wars, starting with the War of 1812. He later joins the messaging corps as a runner, carrying information, a job that he loved. He later moved to San Antonio, where he ran a print shop and met his late wife, a woman from a old Spanish family, and they have two daughters, Elizabeth and Olympia. The print shop was closed down due to the government temporarily taking over the press. In Dallas, Kidd writes to his daughters about reclaiming property left to them by their mother. Due to the difficulties of registration and the changing governments in Texas, they do not have clean title.
After the Dallas reading, a man, Almay, who has followed him from Wichita Falls, offers to purchase the girl (for trafficking). Kidd pretends to consider it to buy himself some time and leaves with Johanna immediately. However, Almay catches up to them with two other men, and there's a shootout. Kidd is outgunned, but Johanna gets the idea to put coins in the shotgun shells to make them more powerful. They kill Almay, wound the others, and ride off. As they travel, Kidd starts teaching Johanna English, and she also recalls bits of German from her childhood.
Politically, there is currently a rift among the Republicans between two camps, Davis and Hamilton, and Kidd tries to avoid politics in his readings to avoid getting people worked up. However, in Durand, the crowd breaks into a fight over politics during Kidd's reading. The city is also is in a state of lawlessness. Davis removed the city's local government and police (for being Confederates), but didn't send replacements. Instead, a band of men act as the authority there, though one of them, John Calley, expresses a desire to Kidd to pursue more honest work.
In Lampasas, Kidd and Johanna skip town to get away from a troublemaking band of brothers, the Horrell Brothers. At his readings, Kidd starts having Johanna collect dimes at the door, a task she's good at. Kidd notices how much happier he feels now.
When they finally arrive at the home of Johanna's aunt and uncle, the Leonbergers receive Johanna dispassionately. A neighbor tells Kidd that they are unlikely to adopt her and will work her hard. Before Kidd leaves, he goes back to see Johanna carrying a heavy bucket in the dark with lash marks on her arms. Furious, Kidd takes Johanna back and they head back north.
Kidd and Johanna continue their wanderings until Kidd's children move back to Texas. The print shop is reopened. Johanna tries to be happy as a proper white girl, but isn't. However, John Calley comes to visit and falls in love with her, now 15. They marry and become cattle drivers together, which Johanna is better suited to. The book ends with Kidd dying at an old age, asking to be buried with his "runner's badge" in his will.
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Wichita Falls, Texas, Winter 1870.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an older man, makes his living traveling to towns across North Texas, reading from newspapers and journals in halls or churches for ten cents per person. He relies on the honor system when it comes people paying their ten cents. Kidd feels a certain dullness and impatience about his life, but doesn’t know what to do about it.
In Wichita Falls, Britt Johnson, a young free black man, approaches Kidd. He has custody of a 10-year-old white girl who was raised as a captive by the Native Americans. In her head, she thinks of telling them that her name is Cicada and that she misses her (Native American) parents, but she speaks only Kiowa, a Native American language.
There’s 50 gold on offer in return for bringing Cicada back to her (white) family. Her (white) parents and sister were killed in a raid, but her aunt and uncle are still alive and in San Antonia. Britt doesn’t have any business down there and doesn’t want to make the three-week journey. He’s also wary of people’s attitudes about black people further south, and he wants to leave her with someone he trusts.
Captain Kidd takes her to some women in town to get the girl cleaned up. The girl has dirty blond hair, blue eyes and tanned skin. They remove from her all the trappings of her Native American life (the beads from her hair, her clothes), and dress her up in a new dress, stockings and shoes.
Kidd also purchases an old wagon for their journey, emblazoned with the words Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas, and gets directions from Britt for the journey south. Britt also gives him a proper gun to replace his outdated firearm.
At 16, Captain Kidd had began his military career long ago as a private in the War of 1812. On March 27, 1814, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, his captain is killed. Kidd is also shot, but heals up fine. Kidd is promoted to Sergeant, but then jumps to to Lieutenant due to the vacancy created by the captain’s death.
Soon, he joins the messaging corps, a job he loves. It consists of traveling alone through the southern wilderness and carrying information of various sorts. He does this for two years. Afterwards, he goes home to look after his widowed mother and two sisters. He completes an apprenticeship with a printer.
Captain Kidd moves to Texas and settles down in San Antonio, where runs a print shop and he meets his wife, Maria Luisa Betancort y Real. She is from an old Spanish family, and they have two daughters.
During the Mexican War, he’s asked to serve by organizing the communications, writing up and distributing orders to messengers. He’s made a captain to make sure that he can get the supplies that he needs.
It later occurs to him that he could help people by dispensing information about the world, and that it might make the world a more peaceful place to know the struggles from other places. He eventually decides that people like tales of remote places as well, and that he could bring it to them.
In present day, journeying with the girl, Kidd (not knowing her name) decides to call her Johanna. He points to himself and says “Captain” and to her and says “Johanna” until she understands his meaning. Johanna is distrustful of him. They travel with two horses, Pasha and Fancy.
That night, he brings out a small sheetiron stove from the wagon and starts a fire for warmth and to cook some food. He shows her how to use it. He thinks of what a lot of trouble this girl is, says his prayers and goes to sleep.
The next day, they head toward the Spanish Fort and come across a company of U.S. Army mounted infantry. The men question Captain Kidd, and he explains that he’s taking the girl home to her family. When they asked if he is armed, Kidd lies and says he only has a shotgun, knowing that the Reconstructionist government forbids the carrying of handguns.
Johanna seems to be grateful that Kidd didn’t hand her over to the soldiers. When he finds her with the revolver in her hands afterwards, he senses that she would’ve shot them if the officer had tried to grab her. They arrive at Spanish Fort in the late afternoon.
At Spanish Fort, Kidd leaves Johanna to feed the fire in the stove while he goes to rent a room at the Masonic Lodge. He also sees Simon Boudlin, a fiddler he knows. Kidd asks Simon and a his partner, Miss Doris Dillon, to watch Johanna while he does a reading. Doris brings the girl a doll.
When Kidd remarks that the girl’s family is German, Doris laments that the girl will have to learn German in addition to English and her native language. Doris offers to take in the girl instead, saying that she reminds her of her little sister who died, but Kidd says that he’s been paid to bring her back to her family.
Kidd does his reading at the Masonic Hall. He reads an article about the Franco-Prussian War, and the audience is predictably amazed to hear of news all the way from France. He also reads about the search for the city of Troy and the laying of telegraph lines from Britain to India. Kidd thinks he sees a blond man that had attended a previous reading, but the thought soon leaves him. At the end of the reading, Simon rushes in to report that the girl is missing.
The track the girl to a river, where she is clutching on to her doll and calling out to an Native American tribe. However, the tribesmen cannot hear her over the roar of the water. One of the tribal warriors pulls out a gun and fires a warning shot. Kidd grabs the girl and takes her back as another shot rings out.
As the head back on the road, Kidd says “aunt” and “uncle” in German, which the girl seems to recognize, but only faintly. It seems to make her think of her (original) parents, which makes her sad. Kidd changes the topic back to learning English.
They soon arrive in Dallas, a small town. Kidd asks the stableman’s wife, Mrs. Gannet, to watch the girl for a few hours, and she agrees. The girl looks frightened to be handed over to another stranger. Kidd tries to comfort her with a pat on the head and, not knowing what else to do, tells her to “sit” and “stay”.
Kidd heads to Thurber’s News and Printing Establishment, to find some recent newspapers. He also goes to the offices of the Dallas Weekly Courier to pick up news from the AP wire. He then puts up notices around Dallas about an upcoming reading.
He thinks about how the dullness and depression about his life had lifted now that he had someone to care for, though he still considered her an inconvenience. He thinks about how he has already raised his two girls. At dinner that night, Kidd teaches Johanna to use a fork, and she is upset about it.
Kidd drops her off at the hotel, but she starts chanting in Kiowa. He explains to the front desk clerk that the little girl is a captive that he is returning. Like almost everyone else he has explained this to, the clerk expresses surprise that she is not happy to be returned to her family. The clerk asks him to please take her to Mrs. Gannet instead so they don’t have to listen to the chanting. Mrs. Gannet graciously agrees to help.
That night, Kidd writes home to his daughters, Olympia and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is married to a man named Emory. Olympia’s husband, Mason, had been killed during the Civil War. She now lives with Elizabeth and Emory in New Hope Church, Georgia.
He hopes that his daughters will move back to Texas so he tries to leave out any alarming news about the Reconstruction. He also encourages Elizabeth, who has an interest in the law, to pursue getting some property back that they should have inherited from their mother. It includes a house, the Betancourt House, and some separate Spanish lands. Partially because the lands had not been registered properly and partially due to the change of governments during the Mexican War, there is now an issue with the title passing cleanly, now that the lands are part of the United States again.
At eight, Kidd goes to his reading. As always, two U.S. army men are situated outside the double doors. Texas is still under military rule, so their presence is required for any public meeting. Politically, there is currently in-fighting among the Republicans in the government, split between two camps led by Davis and Hamilton. Kidd strategically avoids any news about Texas politics in order to avoid getting the crowd worked up.
Afterwards, he sees the blond man again who he had first seen in Wichita Falls. The man approaches him along with two Caddos (Native American men). He identifies himself as “Almay” and offers to purchase the girl. Almay says that he could have just attacked Kidd on the road and taken her, but he’s willing to deal fairly with him and purchase her instead. Almay also implies that his intention is to use her for trafficking.
To buy himself time, Kidd offers to meet with him the next morning to sort things out. Immediately after, he hurries back to the hotel to prepare the wagon and get back on the road with the girl. He takes a slight detour to hide their tracks as he leaves.
By dawn, Kidd and the girl are about a mile away from Brazos and near Carlyle Springs. When they stop, the girl offers to cook. As she does, he notices smoke about three or four miles away. Suddenly, they are being shot at, apparently from a rifle which offers greater range and accuracy than any firearm he has on him.
He realizes they are in a precarious position. At 71, he would not mind dying, but he has the girl to think about. He figures out that they have two rifles and one revolver. He manages to shoot one of the rifles out of the hands of one of the men. He hits one of the men. Johanna uses the stove lid as leverage and manages to heave a boulder down to hit a second man. The last man disappears from sight.
A rifle shot shatters the rock in front of him, causing shards to wound the side of his face. He has only 14 rounds left for his revolver. He shows her that his shotgun bullets are too weak to be used. He tells Johanna to get on a horse and ride off, but she refuses.
However, the girl fetches the dimes and loads them into the shotgun shell casings. He’s amazed by her. With the heft of the dimes, he knew it would go farther and cause more damage.
Almay starts trying to negotiate with him, but Kidd knows that it’s a ruse to get closer so he can kill him. When Almay nears, Kidd shoots, taking Almay out. Then he turns his sights onto the Caddo, and fires on them. The wounded Caddo flee as Johanna sings the scalping chant of the Kiowa. Johanna goes to scalp Almay, but Kidd stops her, saying that “it is considered very impolite.”
The next day, they arrive at the Brazos ferry. They cross the river and are soon approaching a larger city called Durand. As Kidd tries to teach the girl English, he realizes that she must’ve been taught some English at some point, as she slowly recalls a few words. She starts calling Kidd “Kontah”, a Kiowa word meaning grandfather.
As they travel, she seems upbeat, but he worries about what will happen when she’s handed over to her family and has a much more limited life. He recalls how all the returned captives he knows of seem restless and spiritually unfulfilled, some turning to alcoholism or starving themselves to death.
Near Durand, they come across some men who ask him about where he stands on the Davis vs. Hamilton answer. Reluctant to end up in trouble, he gives the man a vague and nonspecific answer. When Kidd is indignant about being asked who he voted for, the man informs him that no Davis supporters are permitted into this county (Erath County). The man explains that Davis kicked out their sheriff, mayor and commissioners (for being Confederate soldiers or public servants for the Confederacy). They also didn’t bother to send anyone to replace them. So, now these men are the authority around there. They demand a dollar and fifty cents from Kidd.
They find a place to shelter for the night. As Kidd puts up notices about his reading, someone comes up to him and tries to engage him in an argument about the David (vs. Hamilton) situation. As he prepares for the reading, he tries to select articles that will not result in tempers being flared up.
Suddenly, he hears Johanna upset. He runs out to find a woman who is angry because Johanna had been bathing naked in the Bosque. Kidd explains the situation to the angry woman, who is still miffed, but quiets down after Kidd talks about what suffering the girl must have gone through as a captive. Meanwhile, Johanna misses her Kiowa mother, who she used to to happily bathe with along with the other Kiowa girls.
From the atmosphere of the crowd at the gathering, Kidd senses trouble. As he starts his reading, men interrupt with inflammatory politically-charged comments. It breaks out into a fight, with the collection can being turned over, but the solider assigned there does nothing. The fight moves into the street.
As Kidd crawl around on the ground picking up dimes, one of the men who had stopped him this morning introduces himself as John Calley, and Calley apologizes for taking his money. Kidd remarks upon the “bad company” that Calley hangs out with. Calley says that those are his brothers and cousins, but he’s looking for honest work now.
Afterwards, Johanna shows Kidd the new clothes that the angry woman from earlier ended up giving her. Due the fracas, Kidd wants to get out of town, so they pack up to leave. When they’re on the road, Johanna reveals that she ended up stealing and killing two chickens for them to eat, since Johanna does not understand the concept of private ownership of animals apart from horses.
Kidd feels bad about the theft and doesn’t like the idea that the town must think of him as a Davis supporter as well as a chicken thief. He also feel sad, worried about whether Johanna’s will be able to assimilate.
On the road again, Johanna is in high spirits. Kidd thinks about how he first traveled up this road to North Texas the year after his wife’s death. Then he thinks back to how he’d been setting up his own print shop at the Plaza de Armas in San Antonia when he’d met her and how he misses her.
Kidd and Johanna cross paths with an elderly woman who is headed to Durand. Kidd gives her some money and asks her to bring it to the owner of the chickens that Johanna had stolen.
Nearing Lampasas, Kidd comes across four men on horses on the road into town. They’d run into Mrs. Becker (the elderly woman from before) earlier, found out he was headed here and came here to warn him. They’re familiar with his readings, and they advise him to avoid The Gem saloon because he’ll likely encounter the Horrell Brothers there. The Horrell Brothers are poorly educated, like to kill Mexicans and are desperate for recognition. Since Kidd reads the news to people, the Horrells will likely hassle him about telling other people about their exploits.
Kidd thanks them for the warning and makes a plan to get out of Lampasas as soon as possible. He also thinks about how just turned 72, and never imagined he’d be alive, in one piece and happily traveling distant roads at this age.
Still, the Horrell Brothers manage to find Kidd. They introduce themselves as Merritt, Tom, Mart, Benjamin and Sam Horrell. They are dressed in mismatched and ill-fitting officer’s clothing. They demand to know why they aren’t in the news. To placate them, Kidd suggests that maybe they are in some far-off newspaper somewhere.
The brothers suggest that Kidd read the news at the salon that evening. Later that night, Kidd seems them guarding him and Johanna, so Kidd stays awake with his revolver in his hand.
Kidd and Johanna continue their journey south into hill country. Kidd stays on the lookout for raiding parties. They make camp at a springhouse, and that night they spot a Kiowa man holding a weapon. Kidd wonders if Johanna will betray him and call out to the man, but she shakes her head indicating that she has no intention of doing so. The Kiowa man and his companions leave.
They arrive at Fredericksburg, an almost entirely German town. Kidd decides to do a reading, even though he knows it’ll be poorly attended, in order to let Johanna practice taking dimes at the door. He also starts teaching her to tell time on a watch. That way he can explain to her when he’ll be back when he leaves her.
Johanna ends up being quite a good dime-taker and takes to the role quickly. As she goes to sleep, he thinks about how her rough edges are being filed away.
Next up is Bandera, a town that’s populated by Polish immigrants working at the saw mill. He does a reading while Johanna takes dimes.
When they near Castroville, Johanna asks if she will be taking dimes again, but Kidd says not anymore. Instead, they will be with her aunt and uncle, Wilhelm and Anna Leonberger, soon. Johanna senses something is wrong and is upset.
They stop at St. Dominic’s church to pay their respects at the graves of Johanna’s parents and sister, but she looks indifferent and wants them to go back to Dallas. Kidd then sends a messenger, Adolph, ahead to let the Leonbergers know about their imminent arrival.
When they arrive, the Leonbergers look at their papers unceremoniously, and they unenthusiastically invite them in.
Despite Kidd’s warnings that the girl needs quiet and a gradual adjustment, the Leonbergers invite people over to look at the girl. The Leonbergers tell Kidd that they plan to put the girl to work. Kidd is skeptical that Johanna will agree to it willingly.
The community comes over to celebrate Johanna’s return, but she refuses to leave the barn, so they celebrate without her. Adolph tells Kidd that the Leonberger’s nephew had been staying with them but ran off because they worked him too hard. He also says that it’s unlikely they will adopt her formally because then they would be legally obligated to support her and provide her with a dowry.
Kidd is crestfallen as he leaves.
Kidd travels to San Antonio and goes to see his old print shop. His business was shut down due to the Printing Bill (which created a state press and shut down other printers to prevent them from distributing contrary material). The lawyer next door, Branholme, notes that perhaps they will rescind it in a few years.
Kidd goes to the post office where he finds a letter from Elizabeth. She sends her regrets for not being able to move back to Texas, citing the difficult journey and the expenses. She notes that she has written to Señor De Lara, Land Commissioner and archivist of the Spanish Colonial Historical Records, regarding their land holdings.
Kidd knows that readings are not possible here, since the big cities have regular distributions of newspapers. Instead, the smaller towns up North on the frontier are where his readings are more popular. He plans to head up North, but ends up riding back to the Leonberger’s in D’Hanis.
Outside their house, he sees Johanna, carrying a 20-lb bucket, and that they’d sent her out after dark alone to feed the horses. On her arms, he sees the lash marks where they’d clearly whipped her into submission. Seeing him, she offers Pasha food, hoping to please Kidd. Horrified and angry at their treatment of her, he tells Johanna to drop the bucket and that they’re leaving. She cries out happily and they ride off. Kidd remarks that “if anybody objects we will shoot them full of ten-cent pieces.”
Kidd and Johanna travel north again, and he continues his readings with her helping out. She enjoys the itinerant lifestyle. When they pass through Dallas, they see Mrs. Gannet (who Kidd had vaguely romantic ideas about), but she’s now with a younger and more stable man. Kidd begins making a Kiowa dictionary for Johanna, but it proves to be a difficult undertaking so is left unfinished.
Johanna never learns to value the thing white people value. The Kiowa pride themselves on making do with as little as possible, and in her company, Kidd finds that himself valuing possessions less as well. Kidd never ends up understanding why in four years of captivity she had become a completely different person and forgot her native language.
Three years later, his daughters return to San Antonio with their families after re-establishing their ownership of the Betancort house, and they begin the (likely hopeless) process of trying to reclaim their Spanish lands as well. With their return, Kidd finally returns home and stops his travels. Instead, he works with Emory at the print shop.
Johanna tries to be a proper white girl, for his sake, but he knows she is merely feigning happiness. When John Calley, from Durand, comes into town one day, he falls for Johanna, who is now 15. He ends up remaining in South Texas, and the two are soon to be married. Johanna promises to visit Kidd often, and Kidd is the one that gives her away. Johanna and Calley spend their days driving cattle in cattle country, which Kidd knows is a life Johanna could love.
Kidd lives to be quite old, and he continues working on his Kiowa dictionary until he can no longer see. Brit Johnson and his companions are killed by the Comanche in 1871. Simon and Doris happily raise a large family. And Horrells continue their crime spree until they are killed in a shoot out in 1877, whereupon they “finally made the Eastern papers.”
In his will, Kidd asks to be buried with his “runner’s badge” from being in the messaging corps in 1814.