In “Enemy Women”, Paulette Jiles reminds us of the great suffering that occurred during the American Civil War, particularly among the civilian population. But the message is also that even in the midst of such suffering, examples of great strength and love can be found.
Adair Colley lives in rural southeastern Missouri with her father and three siblings. Although on the far western edge of the main action, Missouri sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and was the scene of quite a bit of guerilla warfare (ie, vicious and lawless thugs from both sides doing a lot of murdering, looting and burning). Adair’s family has sworn neutrality and has managed to avoid the attention of the marauding forces for the first several years of the war, but that all changes in an instant.
One day, Union militia show up at the Colley farm. Adair’s father is brutally beaten and taken into custody. The soldiers set fire to the farm (although the house survives). Adair and her sisters become refugees and set out on foot in search of shelter and safety. Adair is a spirited girl with a bit of an attitude and she manages to anger another family of refugees they meet on the road. That family then files false charges against Adair, and she’s hauled to a Union prison in St. Louis, far from her family farm.
While in prison, Adair’s interrogator is a Union officer named Will Neumann. The two fall in love. Will helps her escape right before he heads into battle, vowing to find her after he’s done fighting. Adair then embarks on a harrowing journey back to her family farm.
Ms. Jiles also wrote “News of the World”, which I really liked and reviewed here. “Enemy Women” contains that same frank realism about the brutality of life in 1800s America and about how people can be deeply flawed but also sometimes capable of great love. It’s told with the same lyrical prose that occasionally feels like it’s being shot at you with a fire hose.
I have studied the Civil War quite a bit, but it’s all been at a very macro level – battles and politics and military campaigns kind of stuff. Ms. Jiles brings it down to a very personal level first by citing journals at the beginning of each chapter and then through the story she crafts about what happens not only to Adair but also to the people Adair encounters during her travels. It’s very thought provoking. And chilling.
My only complaint is that there is too much suffering in this book. I know that sounds like a silly comment to make about a book with a Civil War setting, but I like my books to have at least a little bit of lightness and this one didn’t really have any. I had to take a break from it about halfway through because it was just a bit too much. For that reason, I didn’t like it as much as “News of the World”, but I still recommend it if you’re looking for some good historical fiction.
Have you read “Enemy Women”? Let me know what you thought.