I only discovered the novels of Paulette Jiles this past February when I attended her presentation of her 2016 novel News of the World at the San Antonio Book Fair. That novel went on to become a Book Chase Top Five at the end of 2016, and it is a novel I still think about from time to time. Jiles is an adopted-Texas writer who writes the kind of serious western fiction that I’m always hoping to find, so I knew I had to read more of her work. I am pleased now to report that 2009’s The Color of Lightning is another high quality western with an unusual plot based upon a real life figure from Texas history.
Britt Johnson and his family left Kentucky for Texas in 1863 with Moses Johnson, the man who owned all of them. By the time they arrived there, Moses had signed their manumission papers and the family was free. Britt and Mary brought their children to the western edge of settled North Texas country, to Young County (approximately fifty free blacks were already living there) where Britt planned to raise cattle and Mary hoped to start a school for the county’s children. But the Comanche and Kiowa warriors who considered all of Texas theirs to raid and exploit any time the spirit moved them to do so, would have plenty to say about what kind of life Britt and his fellow Texans would be allowed to enjoy.
It didn’t take long for things to go very, very wrong for Britt and Mary because, while all the settlement’s men were in Weatherford buying supplies, a 700-man army of Kiowa and Comanche warriors rushed into the Elm Creek community and virtually destroyed it. By the time Britt made it back to his little ranch, his eldest son was dead and the raiders had taken the rest of his family captive.
And Britt would not rest until he got them back or made someone pay for their ultimate fate, whatever that fate might prove to be.
Jiles largely tells her story from three points of view: the women and children who have been taken captive; Britt Johnson as he searches for his wife and children; and Samuel Hammond, the prominent Philadelphia Quaker sent west to assume the role of agent of the Office of Indian Affairs. As she recounts Britt’s patient struggle to reclaim his wife and children, Jiles exposes the utter brutality of life in much of Texas during the 1860s and 1870s, a period during which two very different cultures, neither of which understood the motivations and desires of the other, claimed the same homeland as its own.
The historical fiction of Paulette Jiles often includes rather incredible plots, but the most incredible thing about those plots is that they are based upon Jiles’s meticulous research of real life historical figures. Britt Johnson really was a man whose family was, for all practical purposes, destroyed by a raiding army of Comanche and Kiowa. The traveling newspaper reader and central character of News of the World (who makes a cameo appearance here in The Color of Lightning) was a real man who made his living traveling from community to community reading the latest newspapers he could get his hands on. Jiles’s books are an entertaining blend of fact and fiction that, in the end, provide a realistic picture of what “the good old days” were really like.
If you haven’t already discovered the work of Paulette Jiles, you really need to fix that.