Britt Johnson, a newly freed slave at the end of the Civil War, moves with his family to the wild country of Texas, where he finds more dangers than the racism and violence of the Kentucky he left behind in Paulette Jiles’ gripping novel The Color of Lightning. The story hangs on what little is known of the real Johnson’s life, making the book feel as much a history as it is a novel.
When his wife and children are abducted during an Indian raid, Johnson decides he must retrieve them, and in that action he becomes a player in the much larger story of the relations between white Americans and “America’s great other,” the Native Americans who want to keep the land they have always known as the government tries to corral them on reservations.
A poet and author of two previous novels, including Enemy Women, Jiles is an adept and thoughtful storyteller who makes all of her characters sympathetic, allowing readers to see that there are no good answers to this historical conundrum. Her novel explores the feelings of settlers whose family members have been kidnapped; the Indians who took them; the captives themselves, some of whom have been with the Indians so long they starve themselves to death when returned to their original families; and the agents sent to deal with the Indian problem. Samuel Hammond, a Quaker Indian agent sent to oversee some of the most violent tribes on the southern Texas plains, beautifully illustrates the dilemma of religious Easterners charged with dealing with the tribes in a nonviolent way.
The Color of Lightning offers no easy answers or safe conclusions about this dark era of American history. It shows that people act in their own self-interest, always doing what is best from their point of view. This engaging story ably illustrates the consequences of trying to shift other people, en masse, to a different point of view, while telling the smaller story of a family trying to recover from the horror of an Indian raid.
Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.