The Color of Lightning

The Color of Lightning

by Paulette Jiles


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“Meticulously researched and beautifully crafted.... This is glorious work.” — Washington Post

“A gripping, deeply relevant book.” — New York Times Book Review

 From Paulette Jiles, author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Enemy Women and Stormy Weather, comes a stirring work of fiction set on the untamed Texas frontier in the aftermath of the Civil War. One of only twelve books longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize—one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards—The Color of Lightning is a beautifully rendered and unforgettable re-examination of one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061690457
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/15/2010
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 349
Sales rank: 82,794
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Paulette Jiles is a poet and the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the bestselling novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, and The Color of Lightning. She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.


Southwest Texas

Place of Birth:

Salem, Missouri


B.A. in Romance Languages, University of Missouri

Read an Excerpt

The Color of Lightning

Chapter One

When they first came into the country it was wet and raining and if they had known of the droughts that lasted for seven years at a time they might never have stayed.

They did not know what lay to the west. It seemed nobody did. Sky and grass and red earth as far as they could see. There were belts of trees in the river bottoms and the remains of old gardens where something had once been planted and harvested and then the fields abandoned. There was a stone circle at the crest of a low ridge.

Moses Johnson was a stubborn and secretive man who found statements in the minor prophets that spoke to him of the troubles of the present day. He came to decisions that could not be altered. He read aloud: Therefore thus saith the Lord: Ye have not harkened unto me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his own brother, and every man to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine, and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. That's in Jeremiah, he said. So they left Burkett's Station, Kentucky, in 1863 in four wagons, fifteen white people and five black including children, to get away from the war between armies and also the undeclared war between neighbors.

Britt Johnson was proud of his wife and he loved her and was deeply jealous of her because of her good looks and her singing voice and her unstinting talk and laughter. Her singing voice. All along their journey from Kentucky to north Texas he had been afraid for her. Afraid that some white man, or black, or Spaniard, would take a liking toher and he would have to kill him. He rode a gray saddle horse always within sight of the wagon that carried her and the children. She was as much of grace and beauty as he would ever get out of Kentucky.

Before they crossed the Mississippi at Little Egypt they stopped and there at the heel of the free state of Illinois Moses Johnson caused Britt's manumission papers to be drawn up and notarized by a shabby consumptive justice of the peace who looked as if these papers were the last ones he would notarize before he died from sucking in the damp malarial air and the smoke of a black cigar. The justice of the peace said it was a shame to manumit the man, look at what a likely buck he was, a great big strong nigger, and Moses Johnson said, You are going to meet your Maker before long, sir. You will meet him with tobacco on your breath and smelling of the Indian devil weed, and what will you say to Him who is the Author of your being? You will say Yes I did my utmost to keep a human being in the bonds of slavery and robbed of his liberty, and moreover I spent my precious breath a-smoking of filthy black cigars. Here is the lawyer's signature on his papers and his wife's papers as well. You will have your clerk copy all of these and then deposit the copies in the Pulaski County Courthouse. And from there they went on to Texas.

You could raise cattle anywhere in that country. At that time there was very little mesquite or underbrush, just the bluestem and the grama grasses and the low curling buffalo grass and the wild oats and buckwheat. When the wind ran over it they all bent in various yielding flows, with the wild buckwheat standing in islands, stiff with its heads of grain and red branching stems. The lower creek bottoms were like parks, with immense trees and no underbrush. The streams ran clearer than they do now. The grass held the soil in tight fists of roots. The streams did not always run but here and there were water holes whose edges were cut up with hoof marks of javelina and buffalo and sometimes antelope. Ducks flashed up off the surface and skimmed away in their flight patterns of beating and sailing, beating and sailing.

Mary had been raised in the main house with old Mrs. Randall who was blind in one eye, and she had not wanted to come to Texas, even on the promise of her freedom. Britt said he would make it up to her. As soon as the country was settled and the war was over he would start in as a freighter. He would break in a team from some of the wild mustangs that ran loose in the plains. There had to be a way to catch them. Then he would buy heavy horses. And then they would have a good house and a big fenced garden and a cookstove and a kerosene lamp.

The people who had come from Burkett's Station built their houses with large stone fireplaces and chimneys. They rode out into the country to explore. The tall grass hissed around the horses' legs like spray. Feral cattle ran in spotted and elusive herds, their horns as long as lances, splashed in red and white and some of them dotted like clown cattle.

They had come to live on the very edge of the great Rolling Plains, with the forested country behind them and the empty lands in front. Long, attentive lines of timber ran like lost regiments along the rivers and creeks. Everything was strange to them: the cactus in all its hooked varieties, the elusive antelope in white bibs and black antlers, the red sandstone dug up in plates to build chimneys and fireplaces big enough to get into in case there was a shooting situation.

There were nearly fifty black people in Young County now. Britt said soon they could have their own church and their own school. Mary was silent for a moment as the thought struck her and then cried out, She could be the Elm Creek teacher! She could teach children to sing their ABCs and recite Bible verses! For instance how the people were freed from Babylon in Isaiah! Britt nodded and listened as he stood in the doorway.

The Color of Lightning. Copyright © by Paulette Jiles. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Color of Lightning 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews. More than 1 year ago
The setting is post Civil War, 1860s. The plot is based on actual events. This is the true story on Britt Johnson?s courageous search for his family. Looking for a new beginning former slave, Britt Johnson, his wife Mary and their family left Kentucky for Texas. They had no idea the terror that waited for them. Britt left the house angry at Mary. He returned to find his oldest son murdered and his wife and other two children missing. Johnson set out to find his family. He would not give up until he could bring them home. Paulette Jiles is an incredible author. She successfully paints a word picture of the Camanche and Kowa plight and well as the fate of the innocents captured. Jiles never spares the reader the pain of the era. Her words are graphic and, at times, brutal. The hero in this true story is Britt Johnson, a man that would not give up the search for his family. Johnson inspired the movie The Searchers. The Color of Lightning is beautifully written and a book you will want to put at the top of your must-read list.
ahk5678 More than 1 year ago
This book is very well written, continually keeping me eager to know what happens next. Some of the action is disturbing, yet likely accurate. The book, based on a true story, conveys a feel for that turbulent period of time and place in American history. I particularly appreciate the point made in the book that although cruelty is unacceptable on the part of both Native Americans and settlers, and that people on both sides are confronted with complicated dilemmas, it was the injustice perpetrated by the "new" Americans that set the conflict in motion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely love Paulette Jiles. All her books are amazing. Her characters, her story line, her visual imagery. I can't say enough. You do need to like historical fiction, however.
ElizaJane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reason for Reading: I love historical fiction that takes place in the late 1800's Wild West. The Black man/Indian perspective was also intriguing.This is the story of Britt Johnson, a true-life black man, and the story of his life just after the Civil War. Britt was a freedman with a wife and 3 three children. Not much is known of him in hard facts, though his story has lived on in oral tradition throughout the ages. When he was off with the other men of his homestead area getting supplies in town, the Comanche and Kiowa came in a raided their homesteads. Killing, raping and taking captives. Britt's wife was raped and suffered a major head wound, his eldest son was killed, while his wife and two younger children were taken captive along with a neighbouring white woman and her two little granddaughters. We see this story from Britt's side, from Mary's side, from the children's side, and from various Indian character's sides as well. There is also introduced a Quaker man who becomes the agent of Indian Affairs for these two violent Native groups and he wrestles strongly with his peaceful Quaker ways and the violent kidnapping of children & women by the Indians as he becomes the only man with enough power to help those being violated but he must go against his religious philosophies to do so and yet his moral self will not allow him to not help stop the atrocities.A fine book that brings deep perspective to a dark period of American history. Indians are being sent off their land and made to live on reservations to learn to farm when it is not their way, but in return their way is raiding and war, scalping, raping, enslaving others. Many wrestle with the morality of it all. Britt is a hero on the white man's side as he risks his life to find Indian captives and bring them back home to their own culture, but what to do with the ones taken as babies who know no other way of life. It is wrong that they have been stolen and yet they do not want to leave what they consider there homes. While Britt is a respected man for what he does, he's never allowed to forget the colour of his own skin as he enters city centres and must use back doors or cannot even enter certain establishments at all. A gripping, thought-provoking book peopled with real life figures from history.
hollysing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Britt Johnson, former Kentucky slave, moves his family to Texas to find a new life far away from the Civil War. The Color of Lightning has a violence that shook my sensibilities, but is simply the author telling the truth of the times. Plains Indians captured and enslaved white settlers and settlers gave in kind with violence back. The book was historically informative and disturbing. Britt's indefatigable insistence on finding and releasing the captives is inspiring.
Litfan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"The Color of Lightning" is based on the true story of Britt Johnson, a freed slave who journeys with his family to Texas near the end of the Civil War to make a life of his own. When Britt goes on a journey, his family, along with that of a nearby neighbor, is attacked and taken captive by a band of Kiowa Indians. Britt embarks on a mission to get his family back, and to build a life and a business for himself in this dangerous time in history. The novel beautifully illustrates the tragedy of the conflict between settlers and Native Americans, without ever choosing a "side." The U.S. government is also implicated in the novel for its gross mishandling of relations with the Native Americans, which, even if sometimes well-intentioned, was doomed because of complete ignorance of Native American culture.The writing is very vivid and descriptive, yet sometimes feels inconsistent. Most parts of the novel are gripping and captivating, but some others seem to drag and get bogged down in details. While the characters were fascinating, it was somewhat difficult to connect to them. There were several different, interconnected storylines and at times it seemed the novel couldn't decide what it was truly about. Several interesting themes abounded: the psychological impact of captivity, race relations, the displacement of Native American tribes; but it seemed the novel could never quite decide what its true focus was going to be.Nonetheless, the story overall is quite compelling and is a snapshot of a tumultuous time in American history. There were several moments that were so emotionally charged that my stomach flip-flopped. The descriptiveness of the writing pulls the reader into the story such that you can imagine the scenes as if they're unfolding right before your eyes. The author researched the history thoroughly and overall, this is a very worthwhile read.
JudyKenn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great read. Not only was the story engrossing, the writing was beautiful, the characters finely drawn. It's everything a good book should be. It told the story of the perils and hardships endured by the settlers of Texas both during and after the Civil War, not the least of which was Indian raids by the Comanche and Kiowa Indians. When raiding Indians took Britt Johnson's wife and children captive, the black freedman set off to do the impossible; bring them home. It would have been easy to write this from the perspective that the Indians were barbaric, cruel monsters or from the other perspective, that they were put-upon victims of white aggression. Ms. Jiles managed to bridge the gap between the two. She showed us, rather than told us, what happened to these people and why. There are two sides to every story and she masterfully presented both.
countrylife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sockless. This author knocked my socks off! Giving fair treatment to both sides of the Indian/Settler conflicts in North Texas during the times right after the Civil War, this story reads like the real-life adventure it is. It covers the conflict between the Plains Indians nomadic life and long history of warring, raiding and killing from their northern homes in Oklahoma south to Mexico vs. the incoming settlers farming and ranching on fixed plots in between. The dilemma of good men in government who would have liked for Indians to be free to pursue their chosen lifestyle if only they would give up their raids and killing of settlers. The frustration of settlers trying to keep their families safe, and of Indians trying not to give up their ways. It tells, too, of what befell their captives; the degradations they faced (tactfully written), how they coped, adapted, and changed.In the Author¿s Note at the end of the book, she tells which characters were real persons. She says also: ¿The story of Britt¿s journey to rescue his wife and children from captivity is beyond doubt, as are the brief accounts of his life afterward. . . . This book is a novel, but it¿s backbone ¿ Britt¿s story ¿ is true. Britt¿s story returned to me repeatedly as I read through north Texas histories over the years, and I often wondered why no one had taken it up. And so I did.¿ Around this brave man, a former slave, the author has created a fascinating story encompassing the real life events of the Elm Creek raid of 1864. Unlike those authors whose writing says ¿look at what all I learned while I was working on this story¿, Jiles seamlessly knits together her historical research, with excellent story-telling. I¿m going to put my socks back on and find another of her books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Informative and interesting.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
My local library does not carry Paulette Jiles on their shelves. I found her quite by chance, when I was researching Wallace Stegner. I will be donating her books to the local library, for sure. The Color of Lightning takes place in the High Plains Desert and Texas Hill Country just at and after the end of the Civil War. Southerners were moving on, out of the chaos of reconstruction, families re-united were looking for a place to start over. This book follows the travels and travails of two families - a radically religious man, Moses Johnson, and his family, and the family of his slave, Brett Johnson. as they travelled from Burkett's Station, Kentucky, to the wide open west. Manumission papers were drawn up and signed as they passed through the boothill of Illinois so they all crossed the Mississippi River at Little Egypt as free United States citizens, and went to Texas. Unless you have spent time in the west, it is hard to picture the lives of white settlers here as so vulnerable and dangerous just a hundred fifty years ago. It is a good thing, to be reminded of just how far we have come, and often a hard thing to realize just how prejudiced and arrogant we were. But not an easy read. It is one I will keep on my shelf, and read again. All the things that make the high plains desert home to me are expressed so beautifully in Paulette Jiles story, and all the things that make us better people laid out for all to see.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really good read. If you like history, you'll appreciate this story. It's interesting and well written.
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I usually would not write to an author but this woman is exceptional. I could not put the book down - it was written in a way that kept me interessted as you began to live along with the characters during the really difficult times after and during the civil war. You get a good perspective of the difference in our races and the struggles to survive. Thank you Ms.Jiles for an outstanding book. I am anxious to read more of your writings.I strongly recommend this book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I reread Jiles' "Enemy Women" about once a year, and this novel did not disappoint. Jiles is a master storyteller, this novel is rich in character and historical accuracy.
sparky2 More than 1 year ago
It is so sad what we did to the Indians.
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Frontier history in its raw and terrible beauty, crafted in exquisite language by a talented novelist. There are some parts at the beginning (mostly the introduction of Samuel, the Quaker) that seem like they were written by a different writer, rather lengthy, tedious and unnecessary. The main story of Britt and the Indians will grab you ,though, and not let you go.
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