When the world is in ruins, how do you survive? For Simon Boudlin, the penniless, rootless young man who is the winning hero of Paulette Jiles’ novel Simon the Fiddler, music and love conquer just about all.
Jiles’ 2016 novel, News of the World, a bestseller and National Book Award finalist, was set in Texas during Reconstruction, a few years after this book takes place. Simon and his beloved, Doris Dillon, made an appearance in that story; this time they take center stage as Jiles recounts their origin story.
Their shared history begins at the tail end of Texas in March 1865, during the last wheeze of the Confederacy’s defeat. Simon is 23 but, short and slim and beardless, can “pass for fifteen years of age if not in direct sunlight.” It’s camouflage that served him well in avoiding forcible conscription into the Army of the Confederacy, which in the last stage of the war is rustling whoever it can wrestle into a uniform.
But Simon’s luck runs out after a bar fight, and he’s conscripted. Enough luck remains for him to be assigned to duty in a regimental band, albeit a ragtag one. Just as raggedy are the drilling troops for whom they play marches in the scorching heat along the Rio Grande, although no one quite knows why. “Jeff Davis,” Jiles writes, “had already been captured and was in jail, so what was the army’s reasoning in this matter? Lee had cashed it in a month ago at Appomattox. Lincoln was dead at the hands of a demented actor. Why were they all still here?”
In Simon’s case, it may be fate. When the band is summoned to perform at a formal dinner marking the Confederacy’s surrender, attended by officers from both sides, he lays eyes for the first time on Doris Dillon and is instantly and forever smitten. An Irish immigrant, 18 years old, she has a sweet manner, shining black hair and dark blue eyes. “And God above,” Simon notes gratefully, “she was shorter than he was.” Doris will prove to be much more than a pretty face.
Making her acquaintance is a challenge, though. She’s at the party because she’s the governess for the family of a Union officer, Colonel Webb. Doris is an indentured servant, which means that, in exchange for Webb paying her passage from Ireland, she has signed a contract to work for him for three years. The contract also forbids her to marry or become romantically involved.
That’s an obstacle for Simon, who upon meeting her has immediately mapped out a future for the two of them on a theoretical piece of land. All he has to do is find and buy the land (no small task in a war-wracked economy whose legal system is in shreds) and win the girl — who will shortly be leaving with the Webbs for the colonel’s posting in San Antonio, Texas, hundreds of miles away.
Never daunted, Simon forms a band. There’s Patrick, the 13-year-old drummer boy, another Irish kid with brash charisma and a taste for fighting. Doroteo is a middle-aged Tejano whose guitar playing is just one of his practical skills. And then there’s the enigmatic whistle player, Damon, whose most notable characteristic is his fondness for quoting the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, as Patrick points out: “There’s no end to them. ... Dead cities, talking ravens, spirits in the outhouse just waiting to bite your butt.”
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Filthy and starving, they steal a boat and make their way to Galveston. They set up housekeeping in an abandoned shack, buy used white shirts and ignore the bullet holes in them, and practice, practice, practice. Soon they’re making a modest living, then a better one.
For Simon, music is not just a way to earn a living; it’s his other love. He’s a brilliant player who treasures his fiddle (actually a valuable Markneukirche violin) above all other possessions and lives for the transport music can bring: “Music is clean, clear, its rules are forever, another country for the mind to go to. ... To Simon, the world of musical structures was far more real than the shoddy saloons in which he had to play.”
Jiles’ prose style is built on a skillful balance between formal language and events that are sometimes outrageous, sometimes brutal. Her wit is as dry as a West Texas arroyo, and she has a deft way with description, especially of the natural world. Simon’s thoughts upon capturing an alligator: “It looked like an afterthought God had come up with on the eighth day when all He had to hand was black rock and pure evil.”
Through it all, Simon pursues Doris. At first he does so by mail; it’s charming and somewhat astounding to read that he sends letters with random travelers — the postal service is in postwar ruins — to her care of general delivery in San Antonio, then waits weeks or months for a response.
Simon the Fiddler reads a bit like those letters, come from someplace far way and long ago, but full of fresh feeling and beguiling adventure.
Simon the Fiddler
By Paulette Jiles
William Morrow, 341 pages, $27.99