news-of-the-worldThere are many moments in this small, enticing novel that showcase its excellence, with one that particularly stands out for me. It’s when a 10-year-old girl is perplexed by windows. For four years, she has lived with Kiowa Indians, who kidnapped her after murdering her family. Now she’s being returned to relatives, but she’s lost all acclimation to her former life: “There were drapes hanging in front of the windows against all logic. She did not know why one would make windows in a stone wall and put glass in them and then cover them over with cloth.”  The phrase against all logic is the power punch. How silly of us to shut out the natural world. To live separately from the outdoors, rather than with it, something the girl must unlearn.

The half-savage Johanna Leonberger steadily, suspiciously observes Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. He’s transporting her from Witchita Falls, through the heart of Texas, to Castroville, just outside San Antonio. Not an easy trip in 1870. The unsettled territory between towns is lawless, populated by raiders, vigilantes and Indians. It’s also a politically unstable time during Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Captain’s been paid a $50 gold coin to make the difficult journey. Still, he’s annoyed by the imposition, which he can’t honorably refuse: Kidd drifts from town to town reading newspapers to audiences in assembly halls at ten cents per person. A trip to Castroville is do-able, more so than for the men hauling freight, who have no business in the area. Also, the Captain will protect her.

These are two of fiction’s strongest, most colorful characters I’ve come across in recent books. Captain Kidd is a 71-year-old widow, who fought and lived through the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. His experience, self-confidence, moral character, insight and empathy get him and the girl through the uncertainty of the three-week journey. So, too, does money he receives from reading articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Memphis Daily Appeal, London Times and other newspapers to the public. Meanwhile, the dark blonde, freckled Johanna remains a Kiowa at heart, from a tribe for whom “the baseline of human life was courage.” She’s wise beyond her years and so her choices – and how she interacts with the Captain – provide insight on the nature of her Indian soul.

Not surprising, News of the World is showing up on lists for notable and best novels of the 2016 year. The interesting time in history and unique bond between the Captain and Johanna deliver a solid masterpiece of perfect storytelling. News of the World also was a candidate for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction.

I discovered a Southern novel often described as the one that deserved the classic status held by Gone With the Wind. Caroline Gordon’s critically praised fiction about the American Civil War, None Shall Look Back, came out in 1937, but by that time the reading public had fallen in love with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. According to an article about Caroline Gordon in The New Criterion, (October 1989), None Shall Look Back “promptly drowned in the wake of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Gone With the Wind.” The writer, Laura Weiner, further refers to Gordon’s response to what happened and also to the praise:

“Scarlett O’Hara was ‘a Civil War Becky Sharp, and Lord how they’re gobbling it up,’ Gordon wrote. ‘They say it took [Mitchell] ten years to write that novel. Why couldn’t it have taken her twelve?’  Oh, well. Katherine Anne Porter raved about None Shall Look Back in the pages of The New Republic and John Crowe Ransom sent Gordon a personal letter calling her ‘a Great Artist’ for having written it.”

The literary chatter about what could’ve been or should’ve been regarding None Shall Look Back made me curious, and so I found a copy – a first edition, no dust-jacket, south of $50 – and read it. There’s a Southern Classics Series paperback available; however, I wanted to read the ‘organic’ version, without notes or prefaces providing hind-sight interpretation.

None Shall Look Back
 begins with a birthday party celebrating 65-year-old Fontaine Allard, patriarch of Brackets, a prosperous Kentucky tobacco plantation near Clarksville, TN. The party introduces us to the key family characters, including Fontaine’s orphaned grand-daughters Lucy and Love, his sons Ned and Jim, and his nephews George Rowan and Rives Allard, from Georgia. Ned, George and Rives are surprise visitors to the party – they left school the night before, riding their horses home to join Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. There’s a dance and some romancing on the plantation, and then the boys ride off to fight at Fort Donelson.

The strength of this story lies on the battlefields. Gordon puts us in the tents and through the binoculars of Union and Confederate commanders. She powerfully captures the troops as they wait for action and then fall into the horror of it. I don’t have deep knowledge about the Civil War battles and, in the case of Fort Donelson, read online about the 1862 surrender to General Grant. The historical background information made a huge difference in my understanding of what was happening in Gordon’s fiction. If only she had included a map of the battle, that would’ve been sufficient. Did readers in 1937 not need that?

Gordon anchors us most closely to Rives, who scouts for Lt. General Forrest and, along with Ned, follows Forrest in escaping Fort Donelson before the surrender. The two boys return to Brackets, where they hide in the woods from Union troops, who pillage and burn down the plantation house. With the Union victory and control of nearby Clarksville, Brackets’ plantation slaves have walked away and Lucy thinks, “…we are sinking, sinking; and they know it and have deserted us.”

Rives marries Lucy and takes her to his home in Georgia. Fontaine Allard collapses into ill health, and the family becomes dependent on others for their shelter and food. Rives continues to fight with Lt. General Forrest, whom Gordon portrays heroically throughout the novel, such as at Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. Meanwhile, Lucy nurses wounded soldiers with her mother-in-law in Georgia.  Ned escapes from a Yankee prison and returns home a broken man.

Gordon’s characters are well-drawn but don’t call us to care about them. It makes for less dramatic reading – there’s no “I’ll think about that tomorrow” Scarlett O’Hara or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” Rhett Butler to make us cheer and weep — but the historical significance of the Allards’ fictional lives more than makes up for the lack of emotional drama. There’s an unforgettable final scene of Rives on his horse “carrying the colors” into the middle of a battle, when the original carrier lost courage. Like so many other scenes in None Shall Look Back, it left me with an indelible portrait of the Confederate soldier in battle and, long after the last page, thinking about the American Civil War, more than Mitchell’s classic ever did.

Caroline Gordon (1895-1981) wrote nine novels and three story collections, as well as non-fiction. She was born in Clarksville, TN, where she lived with her husband, poet and critic Allen Tate, on family land.

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