Cover image for The color of lightning
The color of lightning
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : William Morrow, c2009.
Physical Description:
349 p. : map ; 24 cm.
General Note:
Map on endpapers.
Subject Term:
The story of two different families, headed by a former slave and by a Quaker, who settle in Texas during the Civil War.


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"Meticulously researched and beautifully crafted.... This is glorious work." -- Washington Post

"A gripping, deeply relevant book." -- New York Times Book Review

From Paulette Jiles, author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Enemy Women and Stormy Weather, comes a stirring work of fiction set on the untamed Texas frontier in the aftermath of the Civil War. One of only twelve books longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize--one of Canada's most prestigious literary awards--The Color of Lightning is a beautifully rendered and unforgettable re-examination of one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.

Author Notes

Paulette Jiles is a poet, memoirist, and novelist, born in 1943, and based in San Antonio, Texas. She is the author of a memoir entitled, Cousins. Her novels include Enemy Woman, Stormy Weather, The Color of Lightning, Lighthouse Island, and News of the World.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

The author of Stormy Weather and Enemy Women returns with a lively exploration of revenge, dedication and betrayal set mainly in Kentucky and Texas near the end of the Civil War. Britt Johnson is a free black man traveling with a larger band of white settlers in search of a better life for his wife, Mary, and their children, despite the many perils of the journey itself. After a war party of 700 Comanche and Kiowa scalp, rape and murder many of the whites, Mary and her children get separated from Britt and become the property of a Native named Gonkon. Britt must wait through the winter before he can set out to rescue and reclaim his wife and children, only to discover that not only does he not have enough money to bargain with the Indians but also that his own family's fate has as much to do with land disputes and treaties as it does with his determination to get revenge. Jiles writes like she owns the frontier, and in this multifaceted, riveting and full of danger novel, she does. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Jiles, author of the best-selling Stormy Weather (2007) and Enemy Women (2002), interweaves three narrative threads into a compelling post-Civil War tapestry. The stage is set for a tragic cultural collision when freed slave Britt Johnson a character firmly rooted in history and actual events travels west with his family and settles in frontier Texas. His dreams of a new life, however, are brutally shattered when his wife and children are abducted during a Kiowa-Comanche raid. Determined to reunite his family, the only circumstance he doesn't take into account is the assimilation of his children into Native American life. As the focus shifts back and forth between Johnson and the captives, Samuel Hammond, the newly appointed representative of the Office of Indian Affairs, serves as a deeply conflicted bridge between the two worlds. Jiles never reduces her cast of characters to stock stereotypes, tackling a traumatic and tragic episode in American history with sensitivity and assurance.--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2009 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

The story of a former slave, embroidered with fiction, at a turning point in frontier history. THE hero of Paulette Jiles's third novel is a historical figure, a freed slave whose journey into the Texas Panhandle to rescue his wife and children - abducted not by slave traders but by Indians - derives from oral histories supported by a few traces of documentation. The novel begins in 1863 and ends in 1871, a few years before the local Indians were subdued and confined to reservations, and the great southern buffalo herd was annihilated, forever changing the land. Historical novels are by nature elegies. This is especially true of novels of the Old West, and never more so than in the form Cormac McCarthy has refined - call it the Poet's Western. Paulette Jiles, an acclaimed poet as well as a novelist, lodges "The Color of Lightning" deep within this genre, packing her prose with inventive metaphor, luxuriant detail and flights of fierce, austere poetry, as well as hymns to the Texas landscape. This is a place where wind-whipped grasses "all bent in various yielding flows, with the wild buckwheat standing in islands, stiff with its heads of grain and red branching stems," and where dawn can conjure up "morning in paradise," with "fading stars like night watchmen walking the periphery of darkness and calling out that all is well." In Eden, of course, "all is well" never lasts, and Jiles isn't too busy carving cadences to set her story rolling. After a slightly disjointed start, the narrative plunges ahead with accelerating power, forking into several streams: the freedman Britt Johnson's wife, Mary, and their children are seized and taken north by the Kiowa; Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a white woman captured in the same raid, is held along with her granddaughter by the Kiowa's allies, the Comanches; Johnson himself rides off on a seemingly impossible quest to save his family. To this roiling mix Jiles adds a Philadelphia Quaker, Samuel Hammond, sent west by the Society of Friends to persuade the Indians to stop raiding, to settle down and farm. Unlike the galloping arcs of the other characters' stories, Hammond's proceeds at a stately trot, lending the book a contrapuntal thoughtfulness that deepens the whole. Jiles moves fluently not only among various plots but also among various viewpoints - black, white, Indian, Mexican, adult, child. Her roving omniscience gives the novel the breadth and busyness of a Diego Rivera mural, yielding a portrait of a place and the peoples surging through it at a time of irrevocable change. The setting is richly, minutely realized, bespeaking close research. Jiles not only transcribes Kiowa words, she also describes the sound of "the singing language and its fluting tones." But research, as she explains in an endnote, could tell her little about the historical Britt Johnson or most of the other real figures on which she founds the novel. Free to improvise, she creates a gallery of full-toned characters, and the marriage she imagines for Britt and Mary Johnson is, by the book's end, a love story as convincing as it is affecting. She might have improvised a bit more, however, with Johnson himself. Maybe the inherent interest of his journey and his presumed character led her to mold him with a lax, or too-reverent, hand - especially in the book's first half, where he seems little more than a name and a succession of deeds. And though he slowly acquires more distinct contours, he remains slightly abstract. Aside from his skin color, he could be the hard-jawed, laconic lead of a generic Western, straying onto the film set of "Unforgiven" - a set crowded, like the pages of this novel, with richly contradictory characters. Still, it's possible that Jiles intended to wrap her hero in a mythic haze, since, as she writes in the novel's epilogue, "elements of legend have collected around" him. The book's other problem is less ambiguous: Jiles's prose sometimes veers across a state line of style and vision into a certain other author's jurisdiction. When she writes that the Kiowa "were lethal and beautiful and they had come bearing the mystery of death for mankind to puzzle over" and that the Comanches "broke camp in a strange isolate stillness as if in a world just formed and not yet emerged into definition," the prophetic tone, the pseudo-scriptural idiom, the run-on syntax and sprung rhythm all mimic the Cormac McCarthy of "Blood Meridian" and the Border Trilogy. Luckily these echoes are rare and become progressively rarer. Despite the novel's elegiac key, the wide range of its emotional register smoothly accommodates some very funny scenes. In one of them, Samuel, the by now disillusioned Quaker, goes looking for the mule team and the bales of calico that a band of young Comanches has seized from his agency. The Comanches haven't wanted these goods when Samuel tried to dispense them and, it turns out, they don't really want them after stealing them: Samuel finds the mules "wandering around the Keechi Hills draped in yards of flowered cloth." It's a comic depiction of a tragic disconnect. We know how this clash of cultures will play out, and we know that it - like the institution from which the exslave Johnson, even as a hero, can't altogether escape - will never be fully faced by the winners. "Americans," one character remarks, "are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility." IN the end, Samuel is reduced to sitting helplessly "in the ruin of his own personal philosophies." He has come west full of idealistic schemes meant to benefit the Indians, only, as someone puts it, to "preside over their destruction." The Indians remain what another character calls "our great mystery" and "America's great otherwise." Paulette Jiles has set that mystery and otherness at the core of a gripping, deeply relevant book. 'Americans,' one of Jiles's characters remarks, 'are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility.' Steven Heighton's most recent books are a novel, "Afterlands," and a poetry collection, "The Address Book."

Kirkus Review

A novel of the Old West, based on the true story of Britt Johnson, a freed slave whose wife and family were stolen by Indians but eventually recovered. Most of Johnson's narrative has been passed down through oral history, but Jiles (Stormy Weather, 2007, etc.) fills in the gaps more than adequately. One day while Johnson is away getting supplies (and, sadly, after a nasty spat with his wife), his wife and two children are abducted by Kiowa-Comanche along with an older neighbor and her grandchildren. The Indians brutalize the women, but the childrenespecially the Johnson's ten-year-old son Jubebegin to adapt to life on the plains. The narrative divides itself between Johnson's search for his family and his family's exposure to Indian life, and then divides again with the introduction of Samuel Hammond, a Quaker who, as a representative of the postCivil War (and radically revamped) Office of Indian Affairs, is assigned the task of attempting to "civilize" the Comanche-Kiowa and turn a nomadic and warrior culture toward farming. Hammond is appalled at the number of abductions, and even more repelled to discover that some of the younger abductees have no desire to return to their previous lives. Part of the tension involves Hammond's growing discontent with Indian culturehe finds himself conflicted because, as a Quaker friend has written him, it is "our professed desire [as Quakers] to treat the Red Man as our brother and as a being deeply wronged over the centuries that we have inhabited this continent." Meanwhile, Johnson, in conjunction with his Comanche friend Tissoyo, succeeds in ransoming his wife and children, though he discovers that his wife has been psychologically scarred as well as physically injured. During her fragile recovery Johnson starts a freighting company, carrying goods from various settlements to frontier forts through dangerous territory. A rousing, character-driven tale. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

As the Civil War winds down, freed slave Britt Johnson moves his wife and three children to Young County, TX. He dreams of starting a freight business, and his wife wants to teach school. But when the Comanche and Kiowa come raiding, Britt is not there to defend his family; his oldest son is killed, and the rest of his family and neighbors are taken captive. Britt spends a long winter plotting how to rescue them. Samuel Hammond, a Quaker man from Philadelphia, is sent to the region to be the new Indian Agent. He holds high ideals about nonviolence and teaching the Indians an agrarian lifestyle. Riveting suspense builds as Britt journeys north toward Indian country and encounters many Indian captives who do not want to be re-Anglicized. Using as her basis true histories of the Johnson family and others, Jiles (Stormy Weather) paints a stirring, panoramic tale of the young, troubled state of Texas. Highly recommended for historical fiction fans and readers who enjoy original Westerns. [Prepub Alert, LJ 12/08.]-Keddy Ann Outlaw, Harris Cty. P.L., Houston, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Color of Lightning A Novel Chapter One 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 they 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 then the fields abandoned. There was a stone circle at the crest of a low ridge. Moses Johnson was a stubborn and secretive man who found statements in the minor prophets that spoke to him of the troubles of the present day. He came to decisions that could not be altered. He read aloud: Therefore thus saith the Lord: Ye have not harkened unto me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his own brother, and every man to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine, and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. That's in Jeremiah, he said. So they left Burkett's Station, Kentucky, in 1863 in four wagons, fifteen white people and five black including children, to get away from the war between armies and also the undeclared war between neighbors. Britt Johnson was proud of his wife and he loved her and was deeply jealous of her because of her good looks and her singing voice and her unstinting talk and laughter. Her singing voice. All along their journey from Kentucky to north Texas he had been afraid for her. Afraid that some white man, or black, or Spaniard, would take a liking to her and he would have to kill him. He rode a gray saddle horse always within sight of the wagon that carried her and the children. She was as much of grace and beauty as he would ever get out of Kentucky. Before they crossed the Mississippi at Little Egypt they stopped and there at the heel of the free state of Illinois Moses Johnson caused Britt's manumission papers to be drawn up and notarized by a shabby consumptive justice of the peace who looked as if these papers were the last ones he would notarize before he died from sucking in the damp malarial air and the smoke of a black cigar. The justice of the peace said it was a shame to manumit the man, look at what a likely buck he was, a great big strong nigger, and Moses Johnson said, You are going to meet your Maker before long, sir. You will meet him with tobacco on your breath and smelling of the Indian devil weed, and what will you say to Him who is the Author of your being? You will say Yes I did my utmost to keep a human being in the bonds of slavery and robbed of his liberty, and moreover I spent my precious breath a-smoking of filthy black cigars. Here is the lawyer's signature on his papers and his wife's papers as well. You will have your clerk copy all of these and then deposit the copies in the Pulaski County Courthouse. And from there they went on to Texas. You could raise cattle anywhere in that country. At that time there was very little mesquite or underbrush, just the bluestem and the grama grasses and the low curling buffalo grass and the wild oats and buckwheat. When the wind ran over it they all bent in various yielding flows, with the wild buckwheat standing in islands, stiff with its heads of grain and red branching stems. The lower creek bottoms were like parks, with immense trees and no underbrush. The streams ran clearer than they do now. The grass held the soil in tight fists of roots. The streams did not always run but here and there were water holes whose edges were cut up with hoof marks of javelina and buffalo and sometimes antelope. Ducks flashed up off the surface and skimmed away in their flight patterns of beating and sailing, beating and sailing. Mary had been raised in the main house with old Mrs. Randall who was blind in one eye, and she had not wanted to come to Texas, even on the promise of her freedom. Britt said he would make it up to her. As soon as the country was settled and the war was over he would start in as a freighter. He would break in a team from some of the wild mustangs that ran loose in the plains. There had to be a way to catch them. Then he would buy heavy horses. And then they would have a good house and a big fenced garden and a cookstove and a kerosene lamp. The people who had come from Burkett's Station built their houses with large stone fireplaces and chimneys. They rode out into the country to explore. The tall grass hissed around the horses' legs like spray. Feral cattle ran in spotted and elusive herds, their horns as long as lances, splashed in red and white and some of them dotted like clown cattle. They had come to live on the very edge of the great Rolling Plains, with the forested country behind them and the empty lands in front. Long, attentive lines of timber ran like lost regiments along the rivers and creeks. Everything was strange to them: the cactus in all its hooked varieties, the elusive antelope in white bibs and black antlers, the red sandstone dug up in plates to build chimneys and fireplaces big enough to get into in case there was a shooting situation. There were nearly fifty black people in Young County now. Britt said soon they could have their own church and their own school. Mary was silent for a moment as the thought struck her and then cried out, She could be the Elm Creek teacher! She could teach children to sing their ABCs and recite Bible verses! For instance how the people were freed from Babylon in Isaiah! Britt nodded and listened as he stood in the doorway. The Color of Lightning A Novel . Copyright © by Paulette Jiles . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.