Simon the Fiddler

Written by Paulette Jiles
Review by Larry Zuckerman

Simon Boudin, a Southerner by birth, doesn’t care about the Civil War, nearing its bloody end in March 1865. An itinerant fiddler who lives by and for music, he plays wherever he can, until Confederate conscription men grab him and ship him to Texas. After the war, destitute save for his precious fiddle, he forms a motley musical ensemble and returns to work, always avoiding Union soldiers, who’ll inevitably demand to see the discharge papers he doesn’t have.

However, when military governor Colonel Webb hires Simon’s ensemble for a party, Simon sees Doris Dillon, the Irish-born governess serving the Webb family. Simon resolves to make himself respectable—which, to him, means owning land—and woo Doris. Setbacks, even tragedy, intervene, but Simon is nothing if not resourceful.

Jiles knows music the way she knows Texas of that era, which is to say, inside out. Many songs that Simon plays have faded from popularity, but a few still known and loved, especially “Red River Valley,” almost become characters in the story. Unfortunately, aside from the prose, which dances to a pretty melody, I can’t say that Jiles has equaled her previous novel, News of the World. Unlike Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (that novel’s protagonist, who appears here in a cameo), Simon has a narrow worldview, few edges or complexities, and only one real character blemish, a quick temper. As for Doris, she’s perfect—beautiful, sweet-natured, strong, witty, passionate, a young man’s dream—whereas Colonel Webb’s villainies are too many to count. The pages turn, but melodrama sometimes ensues.

Even so, Simon the Fiddler makes a good yarn, and the world loves a lover. If you value literary prose and a vivid portrayal of late 1860s Texas, this book might be for you.