Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed. I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America. If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.
Despite the pull of Confederate conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist. Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself. After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.
When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love. Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again. During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges. Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.
Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly. All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles. And Doris? Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?
All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon. But the ending is not all sunsets and roses. Jiles’ last notes are:
He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there, for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.
And so, life goes on …
After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book. But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going. And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit. Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.
Review: News of the World