Review of Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles
I love Jiles's richly imagined Civil War-era historical fiction, and I'm in for her other books.
Simon the Fiddler is set at the end of the Civil War. Simon is scruffy and hot-tempered, headstrong but kind. He tends toward brawling, but he is a loyal and measured friend.
As the Confederates' surrender looms, Simon's ragtag band plays for officers from both sides of the conflict at a celebration marking the end of the war. That's where Simon lays eyes on the Irish governess for a Union colonel's family. He falls hard for young Doris despite their brief conversation. They part ways, but the thought of her keeps him strong during the hardships and uncertainty of life after war's end.
Simon and his "scratch band" eke out a meager living near the Texas coast and begin to cautiously make plans for the future. Meanwhile Simon makes excuses to write to Doris and eagerly awaits her replies, and over time their friendship blossoms. Simon remains desperate to get back to Doris and figure out if the reality of her matches up to the mental pedestal he's placed her high upon.
Significant page time is spent on descriptions of music and performance, which seems like it could potentially be tedious, but Jiles handles these passages deftly, and I found them soothing. Simon's significant musical ability and ear for arrangement help to build him as a layered character.
Simon is shown to be faulted but true, and Doris emerges as a more full, brave character once she occupies more of the active story. Jiles provides details of the couple's burgeoning relationship while placing us squarely in a rich 1865 Texas setting, and she immerses readers in the mayhem of mixed joys and sorrow that one can imagine makes up life at the end of war.
I might have liked a little more character development, but in a way, the slightly emotionally distant characters suited the conventions of the time, and I didn't feel a lack of connection. The action scenes, when they occur, are fast and furious, with aftershocks the characters scramble to cope with.
Simon and Doris's paths are shaped by villains I loved to detest as well as heroes I adored. As the story wended its way toward the end, I was unable to tell whether Jiles was going to lead the bighearted characters toward destruction or if she would save them from heartbreak. I trusted her not to leave me in complete despair, yet things didn't unfold too easily or positively for long enough that I was on pins and needles.
This is the kind of richly imagined historical fiction I adore, and I'm in for each of Paulette Jiles's books from here on out.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and the narrator of Grover Gardner is wonderful.
What did you think?
This is the third Paulette Jiles Civil War-era historical fiction book I've read. She also wrote News of the World, which I loved. (In Simon the Fiddler there's a cameo from Captain Kidd, a character I adored from News of the World.) She also wrote The Color of Lightning, a book I adored. Next on my to-read list from her is Enemy Women.
I first mentioned Simon the Fiddler in my Greedy Reading List Three Wackily Different Books I'm Reading Right Now, 9/12/20 Edition.