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.
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First, an Enemy Women summary:
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. In Enemy Women, 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 Enemy Women if you’re looking for some good historical fiction.
Have you read Enemy Women? Let me know what you thought.
8 thoughts on “Book Review: Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles”
I read it several years ago. The author is originally from Salem, Mo. I have read a lot about the civil war but this is a grabber. I found that I could almost crawl into her skin, her heart and her “I can and I will accomplish this”
attitude! A good read with a lot of bite to it!
Adair was definitely a persistent young woman. And this book certainly had a lot of bite to it. That’s a great way to describe it.
I also enjoyed “News of the World” and look forward to reading another book by Ms. Jiles. I’ve read so many best sellers of recent years based on WWII. This would be an interesting change I should try out.
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Definitely going to get this . Love reading your reviews….
I also loved News of the World, am interested in the Civil War, and like the local history aspect of this book. But I appreciate your warning about the sadness and unrelenting suffering. We have been reading books in my bookclub dealing with the world wars and I need to give my sad feelings a respite. I will wait awhile.
I read “Enemy Women” several years ago as well and enjoyed it, but agree with you that I liked “News of the World” much better. The suffering was a bit much, but what I enjoyed about it was that it was set in Missouri during the Civil War and living in Kansas I have been particularly interested in “bleeding Kansas” and the battles that took place across the Kansas/Missouri border. Guerilla warfare is very aptly put.
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