In a novel that is rich with evocative language and fascinating historical detail, author Paulette Jiles has created a hero, a heroine and a remarkable love story that resonate with remembered childhood tales of brave warriors, resourceful women, hardships overcome and love triumphant.
In 1996, while horseback riding with a cousin, Jiles discovered a lost graveyard which inspired her to uncover a forgotten episode of Civil War history: the unjust incarceration of Confederate women in southeastern Missouri. Further research revealed a virtual ethinic cleansing, with towns torched and widespread murder of male and even female prisoners, all perpetrated by units of the Federal army. Each chapter of Enemy Women opens with excerpts of harrowing accounts of suffering, torture and murder taken from the coroner's records, military letters and other historical documents.
Onto this carefully researched background, Jiles layers the story of Adair Colley, a teenage girl from the Missouri Ozarks who first loses her family and then her freedom. In jail in St. Louis, she meets Major William Neumann, a Union army jailer from the judge advocate general's department. After months of sparring, the two develop a reluctant trust, and Neumann sets in motion plans for Adair to escape, promising to come for her on his release from the army. The remainder of the novel follows Adair's long journey through the martial law countryside of Missouri, which Jiles herself retraced on horseback, and Neumann's equally horrifying trek from the battlegrounds of Louisiana to his post-war search for Adair.
Jiles, winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award for poetry, uses her poetic and narrative skills to draw the reader deep into the emotional lives of Adair and Neumann. Many passages read like prose poems and yet move with the pace of a thriller.
The reader who enjoys discovering new historical territory will love Enemy Women, which combines a little-known chapter of the Civil War with a fresh, unsentimental, yet age-old romance in the love story of Adair and Neumann.
Mary Carol Moran teaches the Novel Writers' Workshop for the Auburn University Outreach Program.