The Colour of Lightning


Author: Paulette Jiles

Published: 2009

Genre: Historical fiction

About The Colour of Lightning: In 1864, captives were taken after the Comanche and Kiowa raided a community in Texas and one man vowed to do whatever was necessary to get them back.

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Review of The Colour of Lightning

In the early 1860s, Britt Johnson, a freed black man, moved his family from Kentucky to Texas. They settled at Elm Creek and Mary, Britt's wife, planned a school for the children of the community. On October 13, 1864, while many of the men were away getting supplies, Elm Creek was raided by the Comanche and Kiowa.

The women heard them coming. It was unmistakable. The roar of more than a hundred horses at full gallop. There was no other sound like it in the world. It was like some giant piece of machinery bearing down on them from the north along the creek. Elizabeth Fitzgerald dropped her sausage grinder and grabbed for the powder horn and ramrod but she spilled the powder. "Susan, Susan!" she screamed. Pieces of beef and slithering entrails spilled from a pan and flopped writhing on the kitchen floor.

...from page 13

People were killed and captives were taken. When Britt returned to find his family gone, he vowed to get them back, no matter the cost.

I often wish it was safe to read the author's notes before I read the book. Sometimes the information they contain changes my perspective and then I'm tempted to re-read the book with that information in mind. Although maybe that's the plan? To get people to re-read? Still, author's notes often contain critical spoilers and since I don't like spoilers, I'll continue to leave the notes until the end. However, here are a couple of non-spoiler-ish bits that I wish I'd known when I was reading.

  • The Elm Creek raid was a real event.
  • Many of the characters in this book were based on, or inspired by, real people. Britt Johnson, for example, is a legend in Texas and he did many of the things that are told in this book, although the details are necessarily embellished or invented. Likewise, all but one of the captives were real people and many of the Kiowas and Comanches actually existed, including Aperian Crow, Hears the Dawn, and Old Man Komah.

The publisher's blurb on the back of the book said the story was "grounded in history" but it seemed to me it was far more than that. Jiles included a fairly lengthy bibliography that looks like it includes some interesting reading.

And speaking of the Elm Creek raid, that event, as told in this book, was graphic and horrifying and it's proving hard to forget.

I wouldn't say I was crazy about Jiles's writing style but the story itself made up for that. I admired Britt, loved Tissoyo (the Comanche who helped Britt), was frustrated by Samuel (the Quaker who was sent to run the Indian Agency in Oklahoma), and understood Jube (Britt's son and one of the captives). Jiles did a good job of bringing to life some lesser-known people and events from that part of American history.

Reviewed by Lynn Bornath on 4 February 2009 from an advance reading copy supplied by HarperCollins Canada.

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Added 05 February 2009.
Updated 24 August 2013.