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Originally published Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Color of Lightning:" Terror in the 19th Century West

Novelist Paulette Jiles' "The Color of Lightning," a harrowing tale of conflicts between settlers and Native Americans in 19th century Texas, is based on the true story of an African-American man known for his ability to bargain with Indians for the lives of kidnapped captives.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Color of Lightning"

by Paulette Jiles

Morrow, 349 pp., $25.99

It is 1863, and Britt Johnson saddles up with a few other men from his North Texas settlement to ride to a nearby town for supplies. Johnson, a free African American, has brought his beautiful wife and three small children to this desolate, dangerous country to build a life he hopes will be freer of racism than it would have been in Kentucky. While he is gone, a war party of 700 Comanche and Kiowa descend into the valley, killing the men and kidnapping women and children. His wife and two younger children are taken as captives.

So begins "The Color of Lightning," Paulette Jiles' harrowing and gripping new novel about the tragic, stunningly violent conflicts between the settlers of America's West and the Native Americans who already lived there. Based on the true story of an African American who was legendary for his ability to bargain with Native Americans for the return of captives, the novel also tells the fictional tale of a well-meaning, but naive young Quaker from Philadelphia, Samuel Hammond, who is sent to run a regional Bureau of Indian Affairs. The contrast between Johnson, a pragmatic man of action, and Hammond, an idealist who struggles with the ambiguities of reality, echoes the history of a period when government programs and westward expansion collided, ruinously, with Native cultures.

Jiles' spare and melancholy prose is the perfect language for this tale in which survival necessitates brutality. She is also an equal-opportunity storyteller, describing events from the point of view of settlers and Native Americans. Her descriptions of life in the Native-American camps are some of the most compelling sections of the book.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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