four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-The Color of LightningCelebrated Canadian poet and novelist Paulette Jiles won the 2002 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards, for her debut novel, Enemy Women (2002). The Color of Lightning is her third novel.

The Story: Basing her novel on scant historical records and local oral traditions, Paulette Jiles fleshes out the legend of Britt Johnson, a freed slave from Tennessee who settled on a homestead on the edge of the Great Plains in the Texas panhandle in 1863. A year later, while he is away on business, Comanche and Kiowa raiders attack his Elm Creek farm, killing his eldest son and kidnapping his wife and two younger children. While the captive Mary Johnson struggles to survive and keep her children safe in a Kiowa camp, Britt crosses the Red River into Indian Territory, determined to find and rescue his family at any cost. Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, a young Quaker sent to run the regional Bureau of Indian Affairs, attempts to settle the American Indians.
William Morrow. 349 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 0061690449

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"From this brittle biographical matrix Paulette Jiles has created a potent, harrowing story about real people with that genuine heroism that makes legendry pale by comparison." Dale L. Walker

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Jiles is an ardent student of history, and through extensive research is able to reimagine life in post–Civil War Texas and create believable, multilayered characters with remarkable verisimilitude. … It is her deep love of language, an intense respect for its power, that makes reading Jiles’ work such a heightened experience, akin to reading Cormac McCarthy." Steve Bennett

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Jiles’ spare and melancholy prose is the perfect language for this tale in which survival necessitates brutality. … Her descriptions of life in the Native-American camps are some of the most compelling sections of the book." Robin Updike

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Carolyn See

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Paulette Jiles, an acclaimed poet as well as a novelist, lodges The Color of Lightning deep within this genre [of ‘Poet’s Western[s]’ as refined by Cormac McCarthy], packing her prose with inventive metaphor, luxuriant detail and flights of fierce, austere poetry, as well as hymns to the Texas landscape. … Maybe the inherent interest of [Johnson’s] journey and his presumed character led her to mold him with a lax, or too-reverent, hand—especially in the book’s first half, where he seems little more than a name and a succession of deeds." Steven Heighton

Critical Summary

Creating a fictional novel around an actual historical figure can be tricky for any novelist: too much research and background material can impede the plot, while an excess of fictional events and details can make it difficult to suspend disbelief. But Jiles succeeds in walking a fine line between history and invention, and this harrowing, powerful tale is the result. Though the New York Times Book Review thought that Britt was slow to develop as a protagonist, other critics noted Jiles’s ability to shape convincing characters—male and female, young and old, black, white, and American Indian. Jiles’s lush, poetic language and richly imagined settings round out this unforgettable tale of colliding cultures and heroic deeds.

Cited by the Critics

Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West | Cormac McCarthy (1985): In this haunting American classic, most of which takes place in 1849–1850, a teenaged boy from Tennessee runs away and joins a gang of bloodthirsty bounty hunters who stalk and massacre Indians on the Texas-Mexico border.

Lonesome Dove | Larry McMurtry (1985): Award Star Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This award-winning tour de force follows two unlikely heroes—a pair of drunken, philandering former Texas Rangers—on an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana.