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The end of the Civil War has settled upon our great country and now the people of the South are tasked with putting their lives back together again. Young Simon is created so beautifully in poetry and verse and living color with a fiddle in his hand. And while he plays for his supper the troubles of the world fall away before him. Until he meets Miss Doris Dillon, recently from Ireland and now under a three-year contract to work in the employ of besotted Colonel Webb and his fearful, shrinking wife. Oh, and did I forget to mention also be governess to their deceitful teenage daughter? If it sounds like a house of misfits, it is! But Doris endures, while Simon and his band members make their way down the Gulf Coast to Galveston, mosquito-ridden and smelling of salt marshes . Somehow, most ingeniously, Doris and Simon find ways to get a few letters to each other that serve to make their love grow stronger, even as Simon makes his way through the lawless ranchos of the Nueces Strip and finally to San Antonio, under martial law and firmly in the grip of the U S Army. Here is where the Colonel is stationed and where Simon and Doris meet again and begin to make real plans for their future. It does not go as planned, but no great adventure does. But from here you are on your own, so read on and enjoy!
I bought this novel because I really liked her earlier book, News of the World. That novel is a beautifully written road saga about the friendship between an old man and a half-feral girl, with plenty of emotion and adventure to keep one interested. This newer book does not come close to measuring up to its predecessor. There is almost no narrative energy in this story of a young fiddle player who falls in love with an Irish girl early on. They are separated, and the rest of the novel is the story of their ultimate reunion. Unfortunately, everything between their early meeting and the grand finale feels like endless fictive padding. You know immediately how it will all turn out. There are other issues with this book that make the story feel inauthentic. For one, the Irish girl is named "Doris." I am close to 100% confident that no Irish girl born in county Kerry in the 1840s would be named Doris. In fact, it may be the case that no Irish girl anywhere has ever been named Doris. Jiles also repeats one of the common tropes that Southern writers and apologists have been using since the end of the Civil War to prop up their "war of Northern aggression" b.s.---the brave, gallant, handsome Confederate veteran (Simon, the fiddle player of the book's title) vs. the evil, predatory, one-dimensional Union officer (Simon's adversary). We have all had enough of that twisted spin on American history, one which is certainly unwelcome at this moment in America. As for the music angle, Jiles tries to make her musician characters believable, but they are not. She knows a little, but not enough, about Irish and traditional music to pull that off. It is unlikely that the bodhran (an Irish frame drum), for example, was being played in Texas in the mid 1860s. The book just feels fake, and I really wanted to like it.
I enjoy Paulette Jibes’ writing style and her description of the wildness of the Southwest. Her writing is a combination of poetry and prose and the reader is drawn into the storyline within the framework of settings in the countryside and early cities of Texas. Her characters are strong and independent and represent the spirit of the early settlers and dreamers in this country. Simon, the protagonist, is an energetic, lover of music, a self-made decent young man who has made his money by playing his beloved fiddle in service to the Confederate Army and after the war throughout Texas. He has dreams that he is willing to follow in spite of many obstacles that would discourage most men. The story is replete with references to the terrain, rivers and vegetation in Texas. I selected this book after reading The News of the World and I was not disappointed.
Ms. Jiles is certainly a gifted writer; her descriptions of the history, landscapes and hardscrabble lives in post- Civil War Texas are engaging and well researched, but at times her attention to detail makes the story line suffer. For example, there are too many times to count when she discusses obscure musical numbers and songs that our motley crew performs or the redundant chronicle of dirty clothes and sparse meals our group endures throughout most of the book. There's also a surprising element of stereotype in character development: noble Simon, helpless Doris, evil Colonel Webb. I enjoyed the book though it was too long and not nearly as riveting as New Of The World.
For a different sort of history, I read Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles. It is set in Texas at the end of the War Between the States. There is a final skirmish although the war is over, and it involves Simon’s group. His Confederate camp is attacked during the night, and they all flee, but they regroup and counterattack and drive off the Union troops from their camp. However, Simon’s fiddle has been taken. The news of surrender comes quickly, and the Confederates are mustered and given leave to go after piling their arms. Simon gets his fiddle back unconventionally, and they are dismissed. He and some of his musical friends are asked to play at an event hosted by Colonel Webb, the local commanding Union officer. Simon sees a girl, Doris, at the event, and decides he wants her to be his wife.
The bulk of the story is how he and his partners scrape along in the occupation, and how he persists in his quest for Doris against tall odds. She is indentured to the Webbs so has to move with them to San Antonio. Over time, Simon and his musical friends, have a series of adventures; one dies and another leaves after they play in an area where that fellow was from. The ending portion of the story is when Simon and his one last companion make it to San Antonio where he is able to contact Doris again. Colonel Webb dislikes Simon immensely, so the two lovers have difficulties to overcome, but at the end of the book they are able to do so.
I found the writing in this book to be different somehow. Many of the sentences were short, but it worked. There was a musical theme that went through the book, song titles, words, and so forth. The music danced in Simon’s head. Damon, his friend and whistle player, quotes lines of poetry. The author paints some interesting scenes of Texas as she describes their travels and where and how they lived and made their money. I found the book rather interesting to read, but it was not a page turner for me. The story line was acceptable, and the characters were relatively well drawn, especially Simon since he was the hero so to speak. I rather liked the book in that it was quite readable, gave a picture of that period, and had a relatively interesting set of characters.
I had read News of the World and enjoyed it although it had its flaws. This book feels amateurish and clichéd. The constant references to foods and physical locations felt like the author saying "look at all the research I've done." The plot is implausible and filled with inconsistencies. Post civil war travel with a black man would have been fraught with danger and his presence would have not been accepted as easily as the narrative would suggest. It may seem a small point but several times she refers to the temperature saying it was " " degrees. This completely ignores the fact that thermometers would have been extremely rare and that people would not have worried about what temperature it was...simply it was hot. I was also confused by the ending. They were discussing what peril they were in and looking for solutions and then the book abruptly ends. If there's a sequel and that was a cliffhanger, I'll never know.
While the story features rough characters trying to reestablish themselves following the Civil War, the protagonist, Simon, lives resolutely and quietly inside his head. His music paramount until he meets Miss Dillion, he plans as carefully as a general to pursue her via letters until he can make his way to her in San Antonio, rescue her from the family she serves, and spirit her off to 400 unseen acres. He is both abetted and deterred by roughs, musicians, servants, teamsters, and soldiers. His perseverance ever quixotic.
After loving News of the World, I decided to read another book by the author. I wish I could say I loved it just as much, but for me it was just okay.
Set in the time period just following the Civil War in Texas, the confusion and roughness of the time played a big role in this story. The story is about a young man who ends up in the Confederate army as a fiddler in the regiment band. After the war, Simon spends his time playing his fiddle to earn money and dreaming of a better life as a land owner and husband to a young Irish immigrant girl he saw one time. Unfortunately, she was under contract as help to a crazy and dangerous colonel. From here, the story spends its time following the efforts of Simon to earn the money for land and the hand of the girl.
I thought there were moments of great storytelling and then stretches of story that didn’t shine as bright. I was ready for the story to come to an end. There was one little Easter egg - Simon gets to meet the Captain from News of the World in one scene.
The story isn’t bad, it just didn’t really draw me in.
Paulette Jiles' books always make you feel like you're there in whatever fictional world she's creating, and this book is no exception. It'a a picaresque story of fiddler and dispossessed bastard Simon Boudlin, who makes his way from Civil War battlefields to Galveston to Houston to San Antonio, all in pursuit of Miss Doris Dillon, an Irish immigrant governess he saw once. His love is pure and idealistic and it's very gratifying to see how he overcomes the odds to present himself to Doris as a plausible husband and man of property. Paulette Jiles' gift is the evocation of worlds, and you really lose yourself in the descriptions of post-bellum Texas, with its beauty, violence, and possibility. To be fair the book is not quite on the level of News of the World, but some of the characters from her other books make an appearance in this appealing narrative.