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The Color of Lightningby Paulette Jiles
Synopses & Reviews
In 1863, the War Between the States creeps slowly yet inevitably toward its bloody conclusion—and eastern thoughts are already turning to different wars and enemies.
Searching for a life and future, former Kentucky slave Britt Johnson is venturing west into unknown territory with his wife, Mary, and their three children—wary but undeterred by sobering tales of atrocities inflicted upon those who trespass against the Comanche and the Kiowa. Settling on the Texas plains, the Johnson family hopes to build on the dreams that carried them from the Confederate South to this new land of possibility—dreams that are abruptly shattered by a brutal Indian raid upon the settlement while Britt is away establishing a business. Returning to face the unthinkable—his friends and neighbors slain or captured, his eldest son dead, his beloved Mary severely damaged and enslaved, and his remaining children absorbed into an alien society that will never relinquish its hold on them—the heartsick freedman vows not to rest until his family is whole again.
Samuel Hammond follows a different road west. A Quaker whose fortune is destroyed by a capricious act of an inscrutable God, he has resigned himself to the role the Deity has chosen for him. As a new agent for the Office of Indian Affairs, it is Hammond's goal to ferret out corruption and win justice for the noble natives now in his charge. But the proud, stubborn people refuse to cease their raids, free their prisoners, and accept the farming implements and lifestyle the white man would foist upon them, adding fuel to smoldering tensions that threaten to turn a man of peace, faith, and reason onto a course of terrible retribution.
A soaring work of the imagination based on oral histories of the post-Civil War years in North Texas, Paulette Jiles's The Color of Lightning is at once an intimate look into the hearts and hopes of tragically flawed human beings and a courageous reexamination of a dark American history.
"The author of Stormy Weather and Enemy Women returns with a lively exploration of revenge, dedication and betrayal set mainly in Kentucky and Texas near the end of the Civil War. Britt Johnson is a free black man traveling with a larger band of white settlers in search of a better life for his wife, Mary, and their children, despite the many perils of the journey itself. After a war party of 700 Comanche and Kiowa scalp, rape and murder many of the whites, Mary and her children get separated from Britt and become the property of a Native named Gonkon. Britt must wait through the winter before he can set out to rescue and reclaim his wife and children, only to discover that not only does he not have enough money to bargain with the Indians but also that his own family's fate has as much to do with land disputes and treaties as it does with his determination to get revenge. Jiles writes like she owns the frontier, and in this multifaceted, riveting and full of danger novel, she does." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"They were lethal and beautiful and they had come bearing the mystery of death for mankind to puzzle over." The author is evoking the Kiowa raids in North Texas, around 1870. Making their last appearance in this novel, the warriors are just about to kill off Britt Johnson, a freed black man who has become something of a hero in these parts, and two of his luckless friends. But by this point in this... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) meticulously researched and beautifully crafted story, we have seen so much of the Kiowa and the Comanche, spent so much time inside their camps, gotten to know their head men so well, that it's no longer a simple question of "cowboys and Indians" but the culmination of a terrible cultural misunderstanding in which neither side will come out exactly a winner. "The Color of Lightning" begins a couple of years before the end of the Civil War. Britt Johnson — based on a real historical character — his wife, Mary, and their three kids have been freed, and they, along with Britt's former master, move to North Texas to escape the complications of the deep South, which they know will be poisoned and dangerous even after the fighting ends. They fetch up in almost deserted country at the edge of the Great Plains. They build houses, settle down and believe, naively enough, that along with their widely scattered neighbors, they will be able to live peaceful lives. They have not reckoned with what's left of the Plains Indians, who have been instructed by a U.S. government treaty to stay north of the Red River and to stay out of trouble. But the Indians aren't in the habit of doing what they're told, and in their first terrifying raid, they kill off Britt's older son and abduct his wife and two other children, along with another woman and a child or two. They leave havoc in their wake; their behavior has been barbarous, to put it mildly, and the new settlers, both black and white, are left dazed by grief and fury. How could human beings, even so-called savages, behave in this way? In Larry McMurtry's masterpiece, "Lonesome Dove," the action occurs in more or less the same place, about 10 years earlier. Gus and Captain Call, former Texas Rangers, have killed their share of Indians, and Gus will finally be felled by them, but the point of view in that estimable novel is strictly limited. We see the Indians only through the eyes of ex-Rangers. Here, Paulette Jiles, who has done hell's own amount of research on these tribes and especially the captives they took, follows right along with the Kiowa after that first raid, and we learn, as do Mary and her children, what it took to survive and eventually to flourish as captives. Meanwhile, because governments are always goofy and the U.S. government particularly so, it has been decided back East that the best people to mediate with Indian tribes are members of religious denominations. In a stunningly ignorant move, the Kiowa and the Comanche — the most violent tribes, at least by reputation — are placed under the supervision of the Quakers, to whom violence is anathema. Samuel Hammond, a Quaker who has already volunteered to drive an ambulance during the war, has begun to question a good part of his faith in God and the inherent goodness of man. He heads west in supreme innocence. His appointed task is to "improve" the lot of Indians by giving them farming tools and woolen business suits and chamber pots. He aims to show them how to live peacefully on the reservation, to build houses and to refrain from scalping or disemboweling their neighbors. The Indians don't go for any of this. They think it's crazy to live in houses and even crazier to plow the earth. They don't plan to stop raiding; they've been doing it since the beginning of time. And everyone knows they've always taken captives; what's the big deal? The main plot thrust here has to do with Britt Johnson's clever and audacious rescues of his wife and children, and then of another woman and child. He's a remarkable man, caught between hostile Indians on one side and racist whites on the other. But the larger story is about the utter failure of the two cultures to understand each other. I'm sure I'm biased about this novel. My great grandparents were Dallas pioneers, and I'm crazy about this material. But I think, objectively as well, that this is glorious work. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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“Meticulously researched and beautifully crafted.... This is glorious work.” — Washington Post
“A gripping, deeply relevant book.” — New York Times Book Review
From Paulette Jiles, author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Enemy Women and Stormy Weather, comes a stirring work of fiction set on the untamed Texas frontier in the aftermath of the Civil War. One of only twelve books longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize—one of Canadas most prestigious literary awards—The Color of Lightning is a beautifully rendered and unforgettable re-examination of one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.
About the Author
An acclaimed poet, Paulette Jiles is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the bestselling novels Enemy Women and Stormy Weather. She lives on a small ranch west of San Antonio, Texas.
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