In The Color of Lightning, her powerful and moving third novel, Paulette Jiles begins with a real person and, taking the little that is known from the historical record, creates a life for him that illuminates a morally complex time and place in American history – from the last years of the Civil War to the early 1870s. These were the years when Texas was opening up its land for settlement, and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, losing their traditional hunting grounds, were kidnapping and/or murdering the new settlers. During the same period, the U.S. government was trying to corral (almost literally) all the Indians on reservations. The book’s hero, Britt Johnson, is a black man, a freed slave, who, along with his wife and three children, accompanies his former owner and several other white families to homestead on the north Texas plains. One day, while Johnson and most of the other men are away, their settlement is raided, many are killed (including Johnson’s oldest son), and the others, mainly women and children, are taken north with the Indians. (These are dreadfully vivid scenes of carnage, torture, and pain, not for the queasy of stomach.) Heartbroken, and in an angry despair, Johnson rides to the Indian camps to rescue his family. Another major character (one wholly invented by Jiles) is idealistic Samuel Hammond, a member of the Society of Friends who is appointed as an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to use peaceful means to disarm the Indians and get them to agree to become farmers. Other characters for whom we grow to care deeply are Tissoyo, who was banished by his tribal leaders; Mary, Britt’s wife, almost fatally damaged both physically and psychologically by her treatment in captivity; and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a terrifically stubborn white woman taken in the same raid as Mary was. Along with her fully developed characters and vivid, brilliantly crafted writing, Jiles explores the conundrum at the heart of the America following the Civil War, as can be seen in this discussion between Hammond and another white man, Deaver, an itinerant painter. Deaver says:
“They (the Indians) are our great mystery. They are America’s great otherwise. People fall back in the face of an impenetrable mystery and refuse it. Yes, they take captives. Sometimes they kill women and old people. But the settlers are people who shouldn’t be where they are in the first place and they know it and take their chances.”
“You are very cavalier about this.”
“So are they, my friend. The Texans are cavalier as well. Perhaps we can regard this as a tragedy. Americans are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility. Tragedy is not amenable to reason and we are fixers, aren’t we? We can fix everything.”
I was especially moved by the dilemma of the white children who were kidnapped at a young age and had little memory of their early years, as they grew up knowing nothing except their life on the plains. Here’s how Jiles describes one little girl’s feelings about being brought back to the white family she scarcely remembered:
“…she was not afraid of going hungry, or starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing. Of the sky shuttered away from her sight, herself hidden from the operatic excitement of the constant wind and the high spirits that came when they struck out like cheerful vagabonds across the wide earth with all of life in front of them and unfolding and perpetually new. And now herself shut in a wooden cave. She could not go out at dawn alone and sing, she would not be seen and known by the rising sun.”
Incidentally, Britt Johnson’s adventures as an Indian hostage hunter became the inspiration for Alan Le May’s 1954 novel, The Searchers, which was itself turned into the 1956 John Ford film of the same name. In the movie, the character based (very loosely) on Johnson is, through the vagaries of the creative process and Hollywood casting, played by John Wayne.