Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If I could give this six stars, I would. When I chose this book to read, I expected just another of my western novels centering on some interesting female character. Such novels follow a pretty predictable formula, and though enjoyable, one is always aware that one is just reading a story. "Enemy Women" is much, much more than that; it is an ambitiously researched novel that feels like life itself, raw life in a place and time where society has broken down.
The story takes place in southeastern Missouri in the final two years of the American civil war. The main character, eighteen-year-old Adair Colley, lives with her sisters and brother and their bookish, kind father, Judge Colley. All of this is shattered when the Union militia ( a rag tag collection of river rats from St.Louis and environs, basically doing what they want to whomever they want) arrives and sets the Colley house and barn on fire, takes their horses and belongings, randomly destroys things like an heirloom mirror just because they feel like it, and after beating Adair's father in the face with a wagon spoke, they take him away under arrest for "disloyalty."
Adair and her sisters set out on foot, northward, to try to find their father. Upon arriving at the Union headquarters, Adair finds she has been denounced as a spy by a fellow traveler, and is thrown on to a train and taken to a dismal prison in St. Louis.
Jiles opens each chapter with quotes from contemporary diaries and books on the war in Missouri, and in fact, women were imprisoned as Adair is. Major Neumann wants Adair to write out a confession. Adair writes a rather amazing account of her life which, while useless militarily, fascinates the major, but not as much as Adair's dark eyes, long black hair, and spirit do. With the Major's help, Adair escapes, but faces a long hard road back to a home which may not even still be there.
Jiles is a poet, this being her first novel, and her poet's voice runs all throughout "Enemy Women." The language is gorgeous, without being intrusive. When describing natural scenes, or animals, Jiles puts me in mind of Thomas Hardy, also a master at these. Then she can turn around and describe the most vicious, terrifying occurrences of war without blinking. She does not sugar coat; this is war up close and unvarnished. There were times when I had to close the book and gather myself, it was so immediate and visceral.
Throughout all of this, Adair is someone I fell utterly in love with, cared deeply about, and strived and suffered with. She is not perfect, she is human and unforgettable. I became absolutely emotionally engaged with this story and this character. In fact, it seems odd to refer to her as a character...the best fiction doesn't seem like fiction at all.
There is no neat happy ending, but neither does it disappoint, as I felt that "Cold Mountain" (a book this one is sometimes compared with) did. This is a beautiful, horrifying, wartime love story that I simply cannot recommend enough.
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