Book Review: 'The Color of Lightning' by Paulette Jiles

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 3, 2009


By Paulette Jiles

William Morrow. 349 pp. $25.99

"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 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.

See can be reached at

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