Book review: ‘The Color of Lightning’ by Paulette Jiles

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

I ordered “The Color of Lighting” from the library because I had read that it was the first Paulette Jiles book where Captain Kidd appeared. I first met Captain Kidd in Jiles’ “News of the World,” an Ontario Public Library book club selection. If you order the book for that reason, you, like me, will be disappointed. Kidd appears very briefly. However, if you read “The Color of Lighting” as a western adventure based on real events, it will be worth your time.

The story takes place just after the Civil War. It is set in North Texas. At the time, the Indians were slowly being driven out of their traditional lands and stripped of their traditional way of life. The Comanche and the Kiowas were Plains Indians with a dependency on buffalo. In response to the changes, they often raided the settlers who were plowing up the natural habitat of the buffalo, claiming land that should belong to everyone and destroying the freedom that was the Indian way of life. The situation was being made worse by government policies that were intended to aid the settlers and confine the Indians to specified areas. Often those responsible for administration were more interested in their own well-being than that of the Indians.

The Quakers believed that if the Indians were treated with honesty and respect, reservations could be established and peace maintained. With that philosophy, Samuel Hammond accepted the role as agent of the Office of Indian Affairs for the Comanche and Kiowa. He believed that corruption and military force had much to do with the Indian problem and that God wanted him as agent to illustrate what was possible.

Kiowa and Comanche warriors swept through a large area of North Texas, killing, scalping, and taking prisoners. Among those taken were Britt Johnson’s wife, Mary, and two of their children. Britt and his family were freed Negroes who had migrated to North Texas. Britt had established a freight line. He and his two drivers had a reputation of fearlessness. As a result, they did much business with the army and the Indian Agency.

Business aside, Britt wanted his wife and children back. Britt set out alone to get them. On his way, he was fortunate to meet Tissomo, a young Comanche who knew how to deal with Kiowas and their captives. He explained that they were often willing to trade captives for goods useful to them. Describing the person with him as an underwater man, Tissomo was able to gain entry into the Kiowa camp. Once in the camp, Britt asked Tissomo to learn if his wife and children were alive. They were. The bargaining began.

The backbone of the book is the story of Britt Johnson. That said, the reader learns why captives often didn’t want to return to white civilization and why the Indian tribes were usually not amenable to the “solutions” of the U.S. government. Also described is what happens when the religious beliefs of a Quaker man are put to the test of being an Indian Agent.

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