The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles

5/5 stars

The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles is a companion novel to her National Book Award-nominee News of the World.  In both historical novels, Jiles takes inherently thrilling subject matter and renders it vividly with her poetic voice.  Based on a true story, The Color of Lightning features freed slave Britt Johnson and his family, who moved to the Texas frontier from Kentucky in 1863.

Britt is making a life for himself and his family by driving freight, and one fall day in 1864 while he is away, his small community is attacked during a Comanche and Kiowa raid.  Britt’s wife Mary and his children Jube and Cherry are kidnapped, along with their friend Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a white landowner, and Elizabeth’s granddaughter Lottie.  Britt’s singular focus in getting his family back is intertwined with the perspectives of Mary, Jube, and Elizabeth.  Cherry is partly adopted as a companion to another captive, but Mary’s survival, despite a head injury that leaves her brain damaged, keeps both Jube and Cherry from being fully adopted into the tribe.

Jiles doesn’t shy away from the violence and horror of the raid and subsequent captivity; horrible things are told in a simple and spare way.  The book branches out to include the viewpoint of Samuel Hammond, the new Quaker Indian agent for the Kiowa and Comanche.  He struggles with the Quaker tenets of non-violence and their espousal of the idea that the Indians have become so brutal due to the broken treaties and brutal treatment by white government and settlers, even as he sees firsthand the gritty reality of frontier life.

Like in News of the World, Jiles examines how captive children never come all the way back, referring to their light and hidden contempt for civilization.  Jiles skillfully evokes the profound difference between cultures and offers a window into why Kiowa life might have been so appealing.  Despite the brutality of the Kiowa toward older children, adults, and babies, we can understand how the younger children might come to embrace their adopted culture and be profoundly changed by it.  Some of the most interesting passages show how Britt’s son Jube becomes attracted to Kiowa life, to the idea of learning to hunt and becoming a Kiowa warrior aristocrat.  Life is harsh in different ways for white settlers and the Kiowa, and they each have rigid social roles that must be adhered to.  The Color of Lightning is a moving book, with gorgeous writing that gives characters haunting and memorable inner lives.

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