In 2016, Paulette Jiles wrote “News of the World,” which became a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction that year. This year, a movie starring Tom Hanks, based on that book, is in post-
production and is expected to be released this December.
While anxiously awaiting the movie, I picked up her new book, “Simon the Fiddler.” In it, Jiles takes us back to the same time and geography as in “News of the World.” It isn’t a sequel, though; it’s more of a companion novel. The two worlds intersect briefly in coincidence when Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the hero of “News of the World,” and Simon the fiddler are at the same social functions. It’s just a fun little “Easter egg” for readers of both books.
The main character, Simon Boudlin, is a peace-loving man. In fact, he has spent the years of the Civil War trying to stay out of either army. After the Union commandeers his horses and burns his Kentucky horse stable, he takes to the road to make his way as an itinerant fiddle player. Unfortunately, he is conscripted into the Confederate Army just before the final Texas battle of the war. In the confusion following the battle, he and three buddies form a scratch band and are hired to play music for the Union victory party.
It’s at this party that Simon briefly meets the beautiful Irish governess, Miss Doris Dillon. Although they part immediately, she to San Antonio and he to Galveston, Simon knows that the course of his life has new meaning. He knows he must survive the immediate future, make good of himself, purchase land, rescue Doris from her indentured servitude, and marry her. In Simon’s mind, this new mission helps make sense of the insanity of the post-war chaos.
“Simon the Fiddler” is the story of how he accomplishes those tasks. It’s got camaraderie, yellow fever, saloons, relentless coastal rain, danger, alligators, bandits, barroom brawls and, over all, an ideal of the perfect love.
The culture of the time is fascinating. No one really knew who was in charge in the aftermath of the Civil War on the wild Texas frontier. Need a house? Find some abandoned place and make it your own. Buy used clothing and mend the bullet holes in your “new” shirt. Purchase land with a down payment and a shake of the hand, but be certain it’s the true owner selling it.
Simon’s fiddle music weaves its way through all the adventures. I found myself turning often to YouTube to listen to what the songs Simon was playing actually sounded like.
If you are a fan of historical fiction of the American West, I heartily recommend both “News of the World” and “Simon the Fiddler.” Paulette Jiles has a knack for telling an original tale in an honest, well-researched style.
• “Simon the Fiddler” by Paulette Jiles was published on April 14 by William Morrow and Co. It retails for $27.99.
• LuAnne Clark works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in Thursday’s SCENE section every week.