Heat Lightening

The Color of Lightening
by Paulette Jiles

I’ve heard that there really is no such thing as heat lightening–but when I was little, those flashes that lit up the night sky with no thunder, no discernible bolt of lightening, and usually when the weather was hot and humid, we called “heat lightening”. Paulette Jiles novel The Color of Lightening is a little like that. The novel flashed with insight and beauty, a powerful story … but in the end, lacked thunder  and so it fizzled out quietly. 


The Color of Lightening is the story of Britt Johnson, a freed black man, who emigrates from Kentucky to Texas Territory to carve out a new life for himself and his family. We get to know their family very little before the event around which the novel turns: the capture of his wife, Mary, and children Cherry and Jube, by a raiding band of Kiowa Indians. Jiles tells us the story through a prism. The reader sees Mary and the children as captives; Britt, as he races to find them and negotiate their release; and Samuel Hammond, a Quaker sent from the Indian Bureau to “manage” both the Native people and the white settlers.  Taken also in the raid were the Johnson’s white neighbor, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and her two granddaughters, for whom Britt returns.


[spoiler alert]

Jiles’ narrative is perhaps strongest when she writes about the captives Mary, Elizabeth, and the children. Some of the young captives were adopted and treated with great tenderness. Childless wives often took the youngest prisoners in as their own children. The older women were used as slaves; some even took Native husbands. Mary Johnson was savagely raped and beaten at the beginning of her capture, and she lost the ability to speak clearly. Mary works alongside the wife of her captor and waits with longing for what she is sure will be her rescue at Britt’s hands. Jube Johnson, almost ten, comes to relish the life of the Kiowa; children have incredible freedom, young boys are taught early on the skills of a warrior, and were even at a young age waited on by women. It is Jube, perhaps, who has the most trouble returning home–in fact, he initially refuses to go home with his family.


In introducing the character of Samuel Hammond, Jiles is able to investigate the ideas of non-violence in the face of violence, cultural arrogance, and personal freedom. Hammond, a Quaker, comes to doubt his belief in non-violence and cannot reconcile what he feels are his rational offers with the Indian’s rejection of them. Samuel also learns of white captives who will not return to their families after years with the Indians, and of returned captives who mourn the loss of their Indian way of life. While Samuel’s story is secondary, it could have been stronger;
 he sometimes seems to be a vehicle to speak for the author’s own beliefs.


I raced through the novel initially–Jiles’ tale was compelling and she wove the stories together seamlessly. However, by the last quarter of the book, the story’s pace merely plodded along. And the last fifty pages read more like a history text–all event, no narrative. It was almost as if Jiles needed to make the book much longer (so she could continue her storytelling all the way to the end) or much shorter (so she could end on a powerful note).  Sadly, I seem to remember feeling the same with Jiles’ earlier book Enemy Women–also a fantastic story that just faded away.  That’s not to say the novel isn’t worth reading–it is–but any reader who is a plot fanatic should be forewarned.

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