Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Book Recommendation for History Buffs: The Color of Lightning

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 19•17

More dry and cold weather is on the way. I’m winding up my Christmas shopping, staying cozy, and started baking Christmas cookies. Now to give most of them away….  But first, in case you still need books for holiday giving I have another title for you.

Last summer with current events threatening my sanity, I escaped into historical fiction. And Paulette Jiles again won my heart with her latest books The Color of Lightning and News of the World.  Both are set in Texas in the 1800s, both are being turned into movies,  and if you have never read her stories, you’re missing out. The research is meticulous, the language is exquisite, and the characters unforgettable. The setting comes alive with poetic cadence and the whole is gripping and captivating.

In fact Jiles is also a poet and memoirist and she’s a savor-every-word author, and you’ll find yourself pausing, rereading, and underlining as you go along. Sentences and paragraphs like this: He started out in a spring windstorm and made thirty miles by evening. As he came in the low, even valley of the Brazos, he turned into the shelter of the trees. Tall white-bodied sycamores whipped toward the southeast and their new leaves streamed like sequins into the wind. Lightning forked out of the clouds and in its brief catastrophic flash he saw the tree trunks become incandescent. The heaps of crumbling flood debris and jittering small leaves of the chokeberry lit up as if with pale fire. He unsaddled and sat with Moses Johnson’s good slicker over his head under the drumming rain. It sprang into glossy bars as the lightning flashed again and again. The wind tore at the slicker as he grasped its edges around himself and the horses like stoics with their heads down.

When he woke up the wind had died and he could see stars overhead through the leaves. The Dipper stood at midnight when he re-saddled and laid his hand on the packs and checked all the wet knots and stood into the stirrup and went on.

He splashed into the Bravos River in a blaze of moon reflections at a ford that he had used before. Beyond this he only knew to go northward toward the Stone Houses and the Red. 

The story begins in 1863 and former slave Britt Johnson has relocated his wife Mary and their three children to the Texas territory. As he’s away from home establishing a freight business,  the unthinkable happens: a marauding band of Kiowas and Comanches raid his settlement and kidnap and murder his family and friends. Did I mention Johnson was a real person? Jiles has shaped him into a bigger-than life hero on an epic quest as he travels into Indian Territory bent on ransoming his damaged family. His wife Mary has been brutalized, raped, and traumatized and I cannot understate the tension her ordeal brings to the story.

Meanwhile, the Johnson’s neighbor and grandchildren were also captured and their tale is another firm subplot. The details of day-to-day life among these tribes is fascinating, rich, and immersing. Jiles also mixed in a Quaker, Samual Hammond, who is assigned to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, attempting to convince these warrior tribes to become farmers.  It’s a masterpiece.

Here’s the opening: When they first came into the country it was wet and raining and if they had known of the droughts that lasted for seven years at a time they might never have stayed. They did not know what lay to the west. It seemed nobody did. Sky and grass and red earth as far as the eye could see. There were belts of trees in the river bottoms and the remains of old gardens where something had once been planted and harvested and the fields abandoned. There was a stone circle at the crest of a low ridge.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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