SIMON THE FIDDLER
By Paulette Jiles
Fans of Paulette Jiles’s “News of the World” will be delighted — and perhaps a little disappointed — by the author’s seventh book, “Simon the Fiddler.” With her previous novel, Jiles delivered a near-perfect historical novel of compressed lyricism and masterly storytelling about the itinerant adventures of the septuagenarian widower Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd and 10-year-old Johanna, who loses her language — among many other things — when the Kiowa kidnap her and kill her family during a raid four years earlier. From beginning to end, the spare, poetic narrative casts a hypnotic spell as it skillfully chronicles the transformative and tender relationship between the elderly soldier and his young charge. Very few words pass between the two, but a great deal changes. It’s a breathtaking book.
With “Simon the Fiddler,” Jiles taps a secondary character, the redheaded Simon Boudlin from “News of the World,” and opens up the narrative folds of his personal saga, jumping back a few years in time. It’s March 1865, and Simon, a Kentucky orphan raised by his great-uncle, has finally been conscripted into the Confederate Army along with his prized possession, a Markneukirche fiddle. When the war ends, Simon is with his regiment in Texas, which soon boils into turmoil. Land is up for grabs, the Comanches are attacking, the government and economy are in flux. As with her other novels, Jiles is in command of this historical milieu, evoking her scenes and characters with precision and detail.
Amid the roiling chaos of Reconstruction, Simon puts together a “scratch band” with the guitarist Doroteo Navarro, the whistle-player Damon Lessing and Patrick O’Hehir, who plays the bodhran and bones; each one of these characters is dogged and distinct in his own way. For example, Damon has a proclivity for quoting the prose of Edgar Allan Poe.
Much like Captain Kidd and Johanna, the quartet moves from place to place, navigating saloons, hotels, dance halls, public houses and other places trying to string together a meager wage. Their music provides a kind of true north for them all, particularly Simon. Jiles writes: “He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”