REVIEW: Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles
In March 1865, the long and bitter War between the States is winding down. Till now, twenty-three-year-old Simon Boudlin has evaded military duty thanks to his slight stature, youthful appearance, and utter lack of compunction about bending the truth. But following a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas, Simon finds himself conscripted, however belatedly, into the Confederate Army. Luckily his talent with a fiddle gets him a comparatively easy position in a regimental band.
Weeks later, on the eve of the Confederate surrender, Simon and his bandmates are called to play for officers and their families from both sides of the conflict. There the quick-thinking, audacious fiddler can’t help but notice the lovely Doris Mary Dillon, an indentured girl from Ireland, who is governess to a Union colonel’s daughter.
After the surrender, Simon and Doris go their separate ways. He will travel around Texas seeking fame and fortune as a musician. She must accompany the colonel’s family to finish her three years of service. But Simon cannot forget the fair Irish maiden, and vows that someday he will find her again.
Incandescent in its beauty, told in Paulette Jiles’s trademark spare yet lilting style, Simon the Fiddler is a captivating, bittersweet tale of the chances a devoted man will take, and the lengths he will go to fulfill his heart’s yearning.
Dear Ms. Jiles,
Like many others, I was captivated by “News of the World,” which made my Best of List for 2016. Now at long last I get to find out more about two secondary characters who showed up in it. Readers who have not read it need not be worried as this is a prequel to the events of that book. It starts in the final months of the Civil War then carries through as the survivors struggle to make their way through the shattered remains of Texas.
Simon Boudlin feels no regret at dodging conscription into the Confederate Army. He’s quite good at passing for much younger than he is and knowing how to duck out the back door. Fate finally delivers him – via a drunk bar fight – into the hands of his Fate. His war ends with a disastrous skirmish – the kind that makes seasoned military men wince and exchange knowing glances about the stupidity of it and probable reasons for it. Ordered to provide music for the “now it’s over and we can exchange toasts instead of gunfire” dinner for the officers of both sides, Simon meets three other musicians all looking for what they’ll do next. He also spies a woman he immediately knows is The One who is under the thumb of and indentured through contract to a military bully.
Not letting a piffling thing such as military ownership of a boat stop them from taking it and sailing towards Galveston where they aim to form a musical group to earn money, the four are soon eking out a living in the poor section of the city as it stutteringly comes back to life. The yellow jack takes one and the others decide to flee to Houston. Desperate to establish some contact with Doris Dillon, Simon begins an exchange of letters, which must be carefully managed as Doris is forbidden by her employers to be courted, and learns of her misery. Simon is not one to give up on what he wants though and develops a plan which will take him across Texas after the woman he loves.
As in “News of the World,” we are plunged into Reconstruction Texas – though just a bit earlier. Travel is slow, times are hard, and people are trying to piece together their lives. You take your opportunities where you find them and keep moving forward even if you’re not sure towards what. Men in Texas who aren’t in the Union Army are subject to being asked for their discharge papers and one of Simon’s fellow musicians has two worries as he deserted the Union Army before being conscripted by the Confederates. The day to day lives and conditions under which most people live are appalling.
There are characters who die while others will enter then leave Simon’s life probably never to be seen or heard from again in these times of upheaval, difficult travel, and lack of communication. The separation between Simon and Doris is long and the details of what happens in the interim is interesting but in all honesty, I did want to move on to the final section when Simon arrives in San Antonio to – as he views it – rescue his princess from the tower in which she’s being held. Simon does have a bit of a romantic side to go with his hot temper.
Even though I knew the showdown was coming and that it might get ugly, I finished the last 70 pages of the story at a – shall we say – dead run. I hardly noticed the time passing as the story flew by. Yes, it was tense and at times brutal though Simon is rewarded in his choice of woman. Irish immigrant Doris is not only beautiful and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor and delight in this new world of Texas but smart, courageous and determined. I would like to know a bit more about how she wrangled an unlikely ally and if his future career in the Army will progress but he came through with just what was needed for Simon and Doris. Oh, and thank you for including quote marks for the dialog. B