Review of


In Enemy Women, Paulette Jiles examines the life of a young woman in southeastern Missouri during the Civil War. She uses her narrative to illuminate events in that very troubled region, a region that is far away from the places we normally associate with the war. When most of us think about the Civil War, we think of huge armies engaging on expansive battlefields with familiar names like Gettysburg and Antietam. Jiles tells us of mysterious places like Doniphan Courthouse and Iron Mountain. We like to think of brave and noble generals making decisions that impact the future of the nation. Jiles tells us of base and barely military individuals like Captain Tom Poth.

Rarely do we stop to consider the lives of ordinary people, especially people in the western areas such as Missouri, far out of the spotlight of the great battles of the east. What Jiles has done is to place those people under a microscope. She uses her novel to examine their lives in detail, and she explores the suffering they endured when Missouri came under martial law during the Civil War. 

As a novelist, she is able to use her imagination to provide the details of lives not precisely recorded. At the same time, she bases her tale on actual events and people who lived and fought in that setting. To make her story as accurate as possible, Jiles does quite a bit of research, using both primary and secondary sources, which are listed in her acknowledgements. She also begins each chapter with an excerpt from some of her sources. These excerpts foreshadow the events to come, and give the reader assurance that the conditions that Jiles describes are in fact the reality of the situation.

For example, in most Civil War histories, the fact that many women were imprisoned in federal jails for aiding the rebellion is not noted. As a result, very few students of the war are aware of the extent to which this occurred. It must have seemed to Jiles that her readers might be skeptical of her scenario, which relies heavily on the stories of imprisoned women in St. Louis jails during the war. She solves this problem by using her sources as witnesses to the truth of her narrative.

In chapter 6, Jiles’ sources tell us “In June, 1864, Major Jeremiah Hackett reported the arrest of a Mrs. Gibson and her daughter, caught while tearing down telegraph lines.” (55) As chapter 5 concluded, the protagonist of Jiles’ story, Adair Colley, had just been arrested by Federal authorities on suspicion of disloyalty. By using both primary and secondary sources that attest to the routine nature of these arrests, Jiles gives her narrative increased credibility, and therefore allows the readers to give themselves over emotionally to the story, which increases its impact.

In the pages leading up to chapter 15, Jiles describes the dangerously unhealthy conditions of the women’s prison. Accordingly, she begins chapter 15 with a few matter of fact accounts of female prisoners becoming ill and expiring while in custody. We` are told that Nancy Jane Vaughn died of cholera and that a Mrs. Reynolds died after a short sickness in March of 1865. (133-134). It is in chapter 15 that Adair nearly dies of fever, and the girl is never really well again for the rest of the book. Again, Jiles uses her research to demonstrate to the reader that the veracity of her account of the terrible situation in southeastern Missouri.

It is likely that many who will read this book have never read a scholarly work on the Civil War in Missouri, so Jiles has a unique opportunity to educate, and with that comes great responsibility. Unknowing readers will probably accept her words as authoritative on the subject, and if her words reflect sloppy research, bias or just poor interpretations of events, then bad history, disguised as fiction, will seep into the public consciousness. Gradually, over time, a popular fictional account may supplant scholarship in the cultural memory of a people, or perhaps reinforce a regional bias.

It is in this way that scholarly works, when used as research, can become instrumental in making works of fiction more believable and more responsible. Jiles clearly did a great deal of research in preparation for Enemy Women, and the result is a narrative that is informative and at the same time enjoyable. I think in doing so she has done a great service to both her readers and the flavor of local history in the counties of southeastern Missouri, though the flavor is often bitter indeed.

Repeatedly, Jiles provides the reader with illustrations of the naked brutality of guerilla warfare in the west. With Missouri under martial law, the constitution was suspended, and along with it individual rights. People are arrested and held without being charged, some are murdered and most are driven from their homes. Jiles doesn’t lay blame at the feet of one side or the other. She continually points out the routine nature of the violence, and how both Union and Confederate men used it for their own purposes.

What Jiles seems to be saying is that in southeastern Missouri the war had a different character than it did back east. The way in which residents of Virginia or Pennsylvania were treated by armies seems almost genteel by comparison. Whenever possible, armies there avoided doing harm to civilians and almost always limited their encroachments to confiscation of property. In Adair’s world, everything is fair game, including women and children, with the women often being viewed as hostile. Perhaps the vicious nature of the conflict in Missouri was dictated by the remoteness of the region, the activities of armed guerilla bands or the desire for vengeance by neighbors.

For whatever reasons, the Civil War was anything but civil to people in the area. She supports this by having Adair encounter multiple instances of inhumanity and gratuitous violence, beginning in the first chapter, when Union militia attempt to burn down her home for no apparent reason. (11) Later, Adair hides while Rebel guerrillas torture and kill a Union soldier. (263) In Adair’s part of the world, civilization’s rules were temporarily suspended.

The way in which Jiles presents her story makes it easier for the reader to understand the Civil War in Missouri than would have been the case had she written a more scholarly work. In a traditional work of historiography, the individual’s perspective is downplayed as the broader lesson is imparted. In a novel, the author can tell the story from the point of view of one person, which is how the reader experiences the world. As a result, the story seems more real when delivered in this fashion.

A simple device that Jiles uses to make the novel seem more personal is in the elimination of quotation marks. In this device, the words and images are never interrupted, but rather they just seem to flow endlessly, almost as if one were recalling a dream. This is more in tune with our own experience. When we recall an event, the words spoken in our minds are not populated with quotation marks; they just come as they are. The effect of this device is to give the quotes the feeling of memory, rather than narrative, which makes the story seem more real.

It could be argued that Jiles has not adequately explored the larger issues of Missouri during the Civil War, such as troop movements, control of state and local governments and major battles. However, there are plenty of works that do deal with such issues, and I don’t think Jiles wanted to write that kind of book. I think that Jiles wanted us to experience what the war in Missouri was like for one young woman, and to let us quietly speculate on what the war might have been like for us in similar circumstances.

Often as the reader is caught up in the life of Adair Colley, they are tempted to think: What would I have done? Would I have said that? Would I have informed on my family and friends to save myself? Would I have climbed that wall and taken my chances in the streets of St. Louis? It is this kind of deeply personal connection with the characters and the setting that I think Jiles was trying to establish, and she does it well.

This style of writing also helps to explain the character of the people in that region. For the people who lived in southeastern Missouri, and for those who would be the descendants of those people, the Civil War, and the way in which it was fought, left indelible imprints that can be seen to this day. We are told, “The people of the southern highlands would become famous in the nineteenth century for the intensity of their xenophobia, and also for the violence of its expression.” (309) It is easy to imagine how a people can become isolated and suspicious of outsiders in light of the terrible things that happened there.

The traces of the past are not seen only on the character of the people of Missouri, but also on they way in which they came to be regarded by the Northerners who conquered them. In Chapter 7, we learn that Northerners hated Missouri’s “poor southern white trash” and called them “Pukes”; we also learn that Missouri is still identified in some references as the Puke State. (63) These things demonstrate how the barbaric methods that were used to both advance and suppress the rebellion there forever changed the way in which Missouri viewed itself and outsiders. Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women tells us what it was like to have your regional character formed under such circumstances.



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