The Color of Lightning

The Color of Lightning

Stick a thumb into any page of Paulette Jiles ’s The Color of Lightning and you’ll pull out a fine prose plum. The San Antonio author has trademarked an offhand lyricism, and she displays it amply in this intelligent Civil War–era novel: “Britt and Mary slept with the two children between them. They lay in their blankets like parentheses around the two lives in their care.” The book is based on the life of Britt Johnson, an emancipated black man living in north-central Texas circa 1870. After a Kiowa and Comanche raiding party kills his son and kidnaps the rest of his family, Johnson launches a one-man expedition into Indian Territory to retrieve them. Though he negotiates their release and carries them safely home, his wife, Mary, never recovers from her physical and emotional injuries, and his remaining children, a girl named Cherry and a boy named Jube, quietly miss the wild freedom of life among the Indians. Frontier war between settlers and Indians temporarily gives way to the federal government’s Peace Policy, but cultural differences and territorial disputes inevitably lead to a return to violence. Radical, bloody sociopolitical change swirls and eddies around Johnson, his fellow settlers, and his Indian adversaries. Jiles has created a place and time in which hope’s only role is to sustain people until the next cataclysm. William Morrow, $25.99

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