Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Enemy Women

By Paulette Jiles

In the cannon of Civil War fiction Missouri's place in history has often been passed over for the more famous and larger conflicts in the east and south. Though Paulette Jiles' debut novel, "Enemy Women," attempts to bridge that chasm, sadly it serves as little more than filler rubble at the bottom of the canyon.

The novel's unfocussed beginning, impedes the identification of Adair Colley as the story's protagonist, instead we are left to wander among the members of the Colley family. Slowly as the family is separated by the misfortunes of war, the story settles on Adair, a young woman who, in an era where nearly everyone has chosen sides, Union or Confederate, seemingly has no particular loyalty to either side. Her brother, John Lee, has fled into the hills to evade capture by the Federal soldiers who also have beaten and arrested her father, looted their farm, and stole their horses. Adair and her two sisters head north on foot in an effort to win their father's freedom and she soon finds herself in a St. Louis prison accused of aiding the Rebel bushwhackers.

During her confinement Adair is interrogated by Major William Neumann, a man who longs to be out fighting in the field instead of commanding a prison filled with women and children. Of course Major Neumann is destined to fall in love with Adair and when his transfer to a field command in Alabama is granted he helps her escape from prison and vows to find her after the war is over. And once again Adair finds herself afoot, this time heading south back to the family farm, where she hopes when the war is over her family will one day be reunited.

Jiles uses historical excerpts from letters, diaries, official accounts, and whole paragraphs from nonfiction works to preface each chapter, but they interrupt her narrative and stop the story cold in its tracks. She obviously used these materials, all previously published (there is absolutely no new material here), as research for her novel and if it appeared anywhere in the book it should have been referenced in author's notes at the end.

Jiles' knowledge of southeastern Missouri's geography and her descriptions of it are nothing less than extraordinary, so much so that the landscape itself is almost transformed into a character. Sadly the same cannot be said for the rest of Jiles' characterizations, which are two dimensional and as thin as the paper they are written on. We learn little about the lives of Major Neumann, Adair or her family prior to 1864, and know next to nothing about their thoughts and desires past their immediate needs, which drive the thin veil of her contrived plot.

"Enemy Women" is clearly a case where the characters serve as pawns on the chessboard of plot. Had Jiles let the characters think, act and speak for themselves this could have been a great book in the pantheon of Civil War fiction rather than the disappointing, mediocre work of historical fiction that it turned out to be.

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