Enemy Women

Readings

Enemy Women

by Paulette Jiles

William Morrow, 321 pp., $24.95

About halfway through Paulette Jiles' haunting Civil War-era feminist epic, Enemy Women, I pulled out an old Rand McNally Atlas and flipped to the state of Missouri. I had to know if the brutal, mysterious backwoods that Jiles evokes in this historical novel really existed. Sure enough, such places as the "Irish Wilderness" and "Eleven Points River" were there. (They aren't too far from Branson.) In Jiles' tale, they become the locus of unspeakable horrors and grotesque, deformed characters.

Jiles, an Ozarks native who lives in San Antonio, is an accomplished poet and memoirist who spent seven years researching one of the most gruesome -- yet least known -- episodes of the Civil War: the guerilla fighting in southeastern Missouri. In her hands, what might sound like an esoteric dissertation topic is transformed into a lyrical and bloody tale that echoes another recent classic of Civil War fiction, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Both novels are Homeric in their narrative scope, although Jiles' has the added twist that its Odysseus is female, and she don't take no crap neither. After her family's home is burned by the hated Union Militia, Adair Colley and her two sisters set out on a quest to find their father, who has been imprisoned. Colley is quickly arrested herself, charged as a Confederate spy and thrown in a St. Louis jail, a "Female Seminary of the netherworld. A ladies' academy in hell."

Adair is an unlikely hero. She is "Secesh" (a Confederate sympathizer), and a brazen 18-year-old who defies all conventions of a Southern belle. Adair's support for the South's cause has more to do with revenge for the Union Militia's torture of her father than it does with any real political conviction, and Enemy Women is replete with enemy men on both sides who shoot, maim, and lynch each other senselessly. Jiles goes out of her way to depict both sides' inhumanity to man and, especially, woman. She eschews all quotation marks when the characters engage in dialogue and often breaks paragraphs after one terse sentence, lending the novel an aspect of poetic prose that at times reads like Cormac McCarthy's best work. Perhaps it's this hard-boiled tough-gal style that makes the central relationship in the story -- Adair's chaste love affair with her Unionist interrogator, Maj. William Neumann -- slightly jarring and atonal with the rest of the book. But Enemy Women is not the Ozarks' answer to Gone With the Wind, and Jiles affords no sentimentality to the unlikely relationship, sparing a remarkable book a Hollywood ending.

Paulette Jiles will be at BookPeople at 7pm, Wednesday, June 26, to take part in the Texas Monthly Book Group's discussion of Enemy Women.

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