Paulette Jiles

"Enemy Women"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran FEB 10, 2003)

Here in the Show-Me State, we have a bit of a disagreement. Some folks pronounce it "Mizz-ur-uh" while others choose the slightly more refined "Mizz-ur-ee." Eighteen-year-old Adair Randolph Colley, the main character in Paulette Jiles' Civil War tale, would most definitely eschew both pronunciations, choosing instead "misery" since she spends the better part of a year both in Missouri and in misery. Although the protagonist is a young woman and a love story is central to the plot, one should not assume this is strictly a "chick book," albeit a 19th century one. Rather, it is a largely successful attempt to show the Civil War as a deeply personal and affecting event, rather than the grander panorama we more commonly find.

Read excerptThe misery in question comes about when in 1864 the Union Militia, a lawless offshoot of the regular army, unceremoniously rousts Adair and her family from their home deep in the southern Missouri Ozarks. The Militia, "had been sent down to the Ozarks to chastise the families whose men had gone to the Southern Army...and to punish those who might be suspected of harboring Southern sympathies." Jiles faithfully details the more or less guerrilla war that takes place in southern Missouri between the Union Militia and a vigilante group led by a Baptist preacher turned bloodthirsty rebel. I am ashamed to admit that I knew little of this guerrilla war, despite having lived in St. Louis for several years. Although she does describe more conventional battles, Jiles plays out the guerrilla conflict to a much greater degree, which has the effect of personalizing the war. Her characters die defending their homes and their horses rather than on fields of Gettysburg or Shiloh. The Militia destroys the Colley home and imprisons their father, leaving Adair and her two sisters alone, armed against the world with little more than some ungainly hats and a "log cabin" quilt.

The girls leave their home and set out to walk 120 miles north to throw themselves on the mercy of the Yankee commander. "They walked one foot in front of the other. They left behind their grave-places and their dancing places and their animals." Jiles, a published poet is conscious throughout the novel of not only the historical details, but also of the cadence and sound of the language. She does not offset her dialogue with quotation marks, which forces the reader to slow down and decide whether Adair is talking or just thinking. The technique also enhances the dreamlike quality of the novel. Although Adair is only nominally "secesh" (a Southern sympathizer, from secessionist), she is nonetheless denounced as a Confederate spy along the road and is arrested, separated from her sisters, and sent farther north to Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis. Today the site of the headquarters of Ralston-Purina, the prison was "like the Female Seminary of the netherworld. A ladies' academy in hell." During her imprisonment Adair falls in love with one of her captors, William Neumann, a Union major, a move that some may find improbable. He respects her spunk and intelligence so I forgave this romantic longshot; other improbabilities such as a beloved horse fortuitously reappearing are less forgivable. Neumann orchestrates Adair's escape and promises to meet up with her after the war, thus setting in motion a Homeric return home.

Jiles begins each chapter with a quote from either a historical document or a secondary source about the war. I found this framing device a bit tiresome as it tended to give away a bit of what was to come. Likewise, I felt the story was a bit too detail-heavy, and mind you, I used to teach history and generally crave the inclusion of historical detail. It was interesting to me because I live in St. Louis and enjoyed "seeing" how the city has changed. Does a more casual reader need to know the name of each and every street and road Adair takes in her flight to safety? It is almost as if Jiles is trying to convince her reader that this is historical fiction, not just some fluffy women's period piece. She accomplishes this goal more subtly with descriptions of a more conventional battle, choosing to have Major Neumann participate in the siege of Mobile, Alabama, having hooked up with an artillery unit. She manages to lend an air of lyricism to the clunky and definitely unglamorous siege. "All twenty-two guns cut loose. Neumann and the captain stood in the obscuring smoke, their hands over their ears. And the tubes of the cannons shouted for joy in a flattening roar and the earth jumped beneath their feet."

Escaping from prison is only the start of Adair's journey as she must battle hunger, consumption, deep rivers, and even bears on her route home and hopeful reunion with Major Neumann. Modern day readers should find themselves easily immersed in this old fashioned tale. They should also come away knowing more about a nearly forgotten episode in American history. Jiles includes this thought from historian James McPherson towards the novel's end, ". . .these soldiers, at some level at least, meant what they said about sacrificing their lives for their country. Our cynicism about the genuineness of such sentiments is more our problem than theirs . . .and how smugly can we sneer at their expressions of a willingness to die for their beliefs when we know they did precisely that?" While Adair is not fighting for her country, she is fighting for her home and life, definitely as noble a cause.

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About the Author:

Paullette JilesPaulette Jiles was born in 1943 in Salem, Missouri and raised in the Missouri Ozarks. She graduated with a degree in Spanish literature from the University of Illinois. In 1969, she moved to Canada, where she spent eight years as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist in a small town in northern Ontario. In 1985, Jiles won the Governor-General's Award for her collection of poetry "Celestial Navigation."

As an award-winning poet and memoirist, the idea for Jiles' first novel, Enemy Women, sprang from research she was conducting into her own family's past during the Civil War in the Ozarks. Jiles recounts her Canadian experiences in the book "North Spirit" (1995). She has also published "The Jesse James Poems," a retelling of that well-established tradition from her native Missouri and is currently working on a two volume Civil War novel.

Jiles has dual citizenship with Canada and currently lives with her husband in San Antonio, Texas. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014