A couple of months ago at Books in Bloom, I was accepting suggestions for books/movies/topics to blog about, and I received a lot of intriguing suggestions. One of the recommendations was for Paulette Jiles’s Enemy Women. The woman who recommended it told me it was set during Civil War-era Missouri and that the author was a poet and her resulting writing style was lovely and evocative. We got so distracted discussing the book that I didn’t even think to ask her for her name until after she had left, but I recently read Enemy Women and really enjoyed it. (I really hope the lady who suggested it chimes in with a comment, so I can thank her properly. Until then, thanks so much for the great book recommendation!)
The book follows teenaged Adair Colley in the latter months of the Civil War as her family is evicted from their rural Ozarks home by militia. Though her family had remained fairly neutral, she quickly is denounced as an “enemy woman” on the road and finds herself imprisoned in St. Louis. Her interrogator–a Union major–sympathizes with her and even falls in love with her. He offers her the chance to escape, so that she can locate her father and siblings and to return home. But in between her and home is nearly 200 miles of land devastated by war and dangerous irregular soldiers from both sides. As you can imagine, complications ensue.
Adair is an unusual protagonist. I wasn’t quite sure what to think of her at first, but within a few chapters, I actually grew quite fond of her. I think what makes her stand out is, though she is competent and intelligent, she is not especially gifted or extraordinary. Sometimes, she’s quite comical, and sometimes, she’s odd and awkward but not in that way that a lot of fictional characters are meant to be endearingly awkward. As a result, her ordinariness is refreshing and believable.
As much as I enjoyed Adair as a main character, I think the book’s biggest strength is Jiles’s vivid depiction of Civil War-era Missouri. Whether she’s describing life on the road or the harsh prison Adair finds herself in, Jiles has a knack for bringing a setting to life. I’ve read historical accounts of civilian life during the Civil War–and Jiles includes some excellent excerpts of supplementary material of that nature at the beginning of her chapters–but I’ve never really read any novels that bring the chaos to life quite as well as she does in this book.
I keep seeing this book categorized as a historical romance, which seems odd to me. More than anything the book seems more like a road trip story, interrupted by a stint in prison. I love a good road trip story, so that worked for me, but I would have been really confused if the book had initially been pitched to me as a historical romance once I read it. There certainly is an element of romance there, but it is not a huge part of the story. The main focus is how Adair is pulled from home and then her journey to find her way back. So, you’ll likely be disappointed if your main interest is the romance part, but if you like good historical fiction with interesting characters and some romance mixed in, you’ll probably really enjoy this book.
If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to visit our online library catalog to check availability and place holds.
Recommended for those who enjoyed Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.
Have you read Enemy Women? What’s your favorite book with a Civil War setting? Tell us in the comments!