Intrigued by the title, I picked up Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles at a discounted bookstore. The cover enticed me too—a woman on horseback photographed from behind, her long black hair flying as the dark horse gallops off. Was Enemy Women a Native American story? Fantasy fiction? A sexist polemic? The title as metaphor might describe any era, including 2021.
In the very first pages I discover these “enemy women” were mainly white and poor victims of our bloody American Civil War. The title is based on historical fact regarding the women living in the southeastern Ozarks of Missouri. Author Paulette Jiles prefaces each chapter with factual, primary source documents from the Civil War era that corroborate the riveting plot.
I couldn’t put the book down, mainly because of the first person narrator, Adele Colley, eighteen years old. Adele speaks her mind. She shuns domesticity, knows she’ll likely be imprisoned by marriage, and worries it might be to the wrong man. Her free spirit, her bravery, her independent, tomboy behavior, her feel for nature and her unique dreams resonate with me and most women.
Like her, I have been entranced by the silence of early morning, “a coin to be spent very carefully.”
The stampeding horse on the book cover Adele names Whiskey is given to her by her father, a justice of the peace. Of mixed straw color, grey and gold with black legs, tail and mane, Whiskey becomes Adele’s best friend and her only companion. Her brother covets the horse and so does the Union Militia, made up of dubious characters from the Missouri waterfront who joined up “for a keg of whiskey and five dollars a month”, and who outnumber the retreating Confederate soldiers.
Five years before Adele’s mother died of the fever and she is in charge of her sisters. Her brother with his withered arm has fled to the hills to avoid being arrested and shot, it being the Militia practice to arrest Southern men they deemed “weeds in the garden of humanity” and to punish anyone with Southern sympathies.
Adele and her two little sisters watch as her father is arrested by the Militia. The Militia then sets their house on fire, burning everything, even food and valuables, and beat her father up. He calls out to her to flee with her sisters to a distant relative as they take him away along with her horse. Whiskey looks back at Adele, a look she will never forget.
Looking to find her horse, Adele leads her little sisters away, passing graveyards where Confederate and Union soldiers are buried together. Her own journey has just begun.
Jiles’ careful, singular writing style complements Adele fleeing into the hills of the Ozarks as she follows the flow of the rivers through magnificent wilderness, high mountain territory where the women and children have been left behind. The author’s decision not to use direct quotes provides stark contrast to the meticulous, primary source quotations that precede chapters.
The documents from the Civil War era magnify the power and horror of the era. In one letter penned a few hours before being hanged in a St. Louis prison, Asa Ladd, Confederate soldier, writes to his wife, “I want you to tell all my friends I have gone home to rest. I want you meet me in heaven.” My heart bleeds for the victims.
Can you imagine any book being titled “Enemy Men”? This is not just a story set during the American Civil War, not just a story of the North or South. Reading it, I can see and feel familiar ghosts of “enemy” women everywhere: in the social media, today’s news, catastrophic climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
Note: This book deserves the five stars I gave it on Goodreads.
Coming up: a chance to write your heart out at my Spring 2021 From Heart to Paper Workshop. There’s a place waiting for you.