In one of the many end-of-year best books lists that came out in December, I saw this novel mentioned. The reviewer said that it was set at the end of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath in Texas and featured an itinerant fiddler and an Irish servant who fall in love but are separated. I do enjoy historical fiction and this is a time period about which I know very little, so it seemed like an entertaining way to get a sense of the era. For the most part, my expectations were satisfied. Simon the Fiddler has tropes that a lot of people really go for: common people who work hard in frontier territory, who believe in some kind of American dream (even if not stated as such); the poor guy getting the better of the richer more privileged guy; high adventure out West. Apparently, Paulette Jiles excels at this sort of thing, since one of her previous novels News of the World was nominated for a National Book Award and has been turned into a film starring Tom Hanks, due out this year. Simon the Fiddler provides plenty of action, a determined and gritty protagonist, and an interesting portrait of Texas in a period of transition.
Simon Boudlin is stuck in Texas with the Confederate army at the end of the Civil War. He had been pretty successful avoiding conscription by either side, given his slight build and boyish looks, and he had been supporting himself as an itinerant fiddler until fate caught up. Now that the war is over and his army has surrendered to Union Colonel Webb, he has plans to move on, whether he has the papers to do so or not. Simon loves his music as well as peace and quiet. He dreams of getting land for himself in this new territory, but his plans change a bit when he espies the beautiful Irish governess Doris Dillon who works for Webb. She is indentured to the family and must travel with them to San Antonio, and so Simon decides that he will earn enough money to purchase land and marry Doris. Naturally, a number of obstacles are in his way. First, there is the matter of money. Simon throws his lot in with three other war veterans who are musicians as well; they form a band and take off without papers for Galveston. In order to succeed, they need to find venues that will hire them, learn to play together and find ways to make themselves presentable while also avoiding authorities who might ask for their papers. Then there is the matter of trying to get in contact with Doris; her situation is complicated by the fact that she is indentured and that Col. Webb has nefarious designs on her. Simon also needs to find land to purchase, and he and his mates all must learn to deal with Texas storms and the yellow fever.
Jiles paints vivid pictures of the small Texas towns Simon and the band encounter. These are places that have endured wars for decades, not just the Civil War, and the matter of who has legal authority is often complicated. Simon’s band mates are a diverse and interesting bunch as well, including a Union drummer boy, a Mexican who go sucked into the war on the Confederate side, and a whistle player named Damon who possesses vast knowledge of poetry and a background that is not revealed until the very end of the story. Simon’s own background story is revealed in tiny bits and pieces and is never fully fleshed out, in my opinion. This leads to some of the beefs I have with the story. I had hoped for some kind of resolution to the matter of Simon’s inheritance from his family’s ruined Kentucky horse stables since it is mentioned several times in the story. Also, the development of non-white characters is rather poor. A few black/brown folks are thrown into the story, but so are wild horses and cacti. It felt like they were all given about the same attention.
The last several chapters of the novel are action packed, with villains who ought to be twirling their mustaches and even a courtroom drama. Jiles wraps up the plot with a neat little bow, and it’s mostly OK. If you want to read a story of western expansion where white people of modest means get to be all plucky and hopeful, this is it. If you want a story that shows what that expansion meant for indigenous people and/or non-white folks, keep looking.