Paulette Jiles’ new novel, “Simon The Fiddler”, is both charming and a wonderful story; the writer offers us some fascinating history of the State of Texas right after the end of The Civil War, when the novel takes place. It feels, in many ways, like a fairy tale, which is part of the wonder of the book, and, as the author is a woman, Giles is most astute when writing about the interrelationships between and amongst the four men who become a traveling musical troupe in Southeastern Texas in particular. She makes these men human, caring about one another, gentle most of the time, offering a valuable alternative to the macho Westerns most of us grew up watching or reading. And the central female character is strong and independent and sure of mind and her sense of self.
Nearing the end of The Civil War, it was common for men to be drafted both by Northern and Southern forces, depending upon where one was caught. Simon has left Paducah, Kentucky after the land and horses owned by his family are burned to the ground by a raiding army; he looks much younger than he is, thus avoiding the army altogether. His journey in this novel begins in Texas, where he’s playing his fiddle at a wedding party, determined to make his living playing thus; his skill is exceptional. Eventually he does get caught by Southern forces and is forced into minor combat, though his skills as fiddler generally keep him in the musical background to lift the troops’ spirits. After a pointless raid by Northern forces on a random island off the coast of Texas, Simon literally walks away from the camp, and first two other musicians join him, followed by a young boy, Patrick, who’s run away from home and joins these other men in trying to start new lives in a world of chaos, with governments changing virtually daily, no postal service, and the like; Jiles’ history is impeccable and her sense of Texas, where she resides, exceptional. Simon becomes the leader of the musical troupe, and the four escape from the island in a stolen boat, finally reaching Galveston, where they begin to get some gigs in local saloons and the like. Galveston’s been pretty much destroyed in the war; Jiles’ descriptions of this mostly decimated city are brilliantly written; her knowledge of place, of flora and fauna, of weather and the vastness of the Texas skies and landscapes, are some of the best parts of this novel.
The four men live together in one room, and this is where Jiles is at her finest: they accommodate one another, learn to understand each others’ needs, foibles, tempers, care for one another: her men are the opposite of that “rugged individual” made popular by Western movies of the fifties and iconized into the Marlboro cowboy man, that solo rider of horses and man of complete (alleged) autonomy. Jiles’ alternative men are kind, thoughtful and caring; perhaps by making them musicians, she’s able to make these personality traits more credible, and she’s completely successful in doing so. At a party celebrating that last battle in Texas, Simon sees, for the first time, the lovely Doris Dillon, whom he will learn is the governess to the one daughter of the commanding officer of the lost battle. It’s love at first sight, a wonderful trope for today’s ultra-cynical world in which commitment seems nigh on impossible (no doubt part of the author’s point). Simon’s able to determine over a period of time that Doris’ boss is abusive to his family and has made unwanted sexual advances to Doris. But after Simon and his troupe leave for Galveston and eventually Houston ( a city much derided here), Simon has to find ways to write to Doris; as the four men help him to write these letters, we again see the empathy possible amongst men living on the very edge of survival. Successes begin to occur as demand for the musical troupe increases (they leave Galveston after young Patrick succumbs to yellow fever). My favorite detail about Houston of the era is the tradition of shooting one’s gun up one’s chimney to celebrate New Year’s Eve….the author’s view of these Texas cities is often funny; men fight all the time because they’re drunk, and violence is a daily thing, but she presents the four musicians as alternative species of men, with real success.
After Patrick’s death, they go to San Antonio so Simon can find Doris (we’ve been told all along that Simon has a temper). At various stops along the way, and/or at parties they play at, Simon gets an education in the ways of the rich, and/or of their romantic, love-starved daughters, and the other members of the musical troupe eventually go their own way for their own reasons. I won’t ruin the plot by explaining how Doris and Simon meet again, and how they sneak visits and the like (the maid of the house is involved, of course), but when Simon is in real trouble and jailed for a violent defense of himself in a bar fight, it’s the very strong-willed and strong-minded Doris who will save him: this is a critically important part of the novel, a feminist underpinning of real importance, countering the commonly held assumption that women of the era are completely passive, objects, to be sheltered and protected. In the process of “Simon The Fiddler”, Paulette Jiles undermines all sorts of assumptions about gender, making the novel stronger while rejecting those tropes from Western novels and, eventually, movies and television shows we all watched along the way. The novel’s happy ending seems well earned; it may itself be a trope of sorts by the author.
“Simon The Fiddler” is a lovely read; what the reader learns about Texas history is alone fascinating, and the novel is didactic as well as slyly feminist and almost a fable in ways, but it also reminds us that not all men are inherently violent and not all women passive objects, and, by placing her novel in the l860s ,Jiles has a triumph on her hands for those of us reading with contemporary eyes.