Margaret Murray's Reviews > Enemy Women

Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
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it was amazing
bookshelves: currently-rereading

When I picked up Enemy Women, I imagined the intriguing title to be a metaphor that might describe any era, including my own, the twenty-first century. Looking more closely at the cover, I saw a photo of a woman on a horse photographed from behind, her long black hair flying one direction while the horse, ears pricking, leaned in the other. A Native American story? A fantasy adventure? No, these “enemy women” I found out were mainly white and poor, living in the southeastern Ozarks of Missouri during the American Civil War.

I couldn't put the book down, mainly because of Adele Colley, eighteen years old, first person narrator. Adele speaks her mind, is eager to know her future. She shuns domesticity, knows she’ll likely be imprisoned by marriage, and worried it might be to the wrong man. Adele’s free spirit, her bravery, her independent, tomboy behavior and her unique dreams hooked me. I too have been entranced by the silence of early morning, “a coin to be spent very carefully.”

In the first pages, Adele’s father gives her a dun horse she names Whiskey, of mixed straw color, grey and gold with black legs, tail and mane. Whiskey is Adele’s best friend, 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 totally outnumber the retreating Confederate soldiers.

Adele’s mother died of the fever five years before and her brother, with his withered arm, has fled to the hills to avoid being arrested and shot (the Militia practice being to arrest Southern men “weeds in the garden of humanity” and punish anyone with Southern sympathies).

Even though the Colley’s are officially “non-partisan”, Adele (and her two little sisters) watch as her father, a justice of the peace, is arrested by the Militia. Adele’s father tells her to flee with her sisters to a distant relative. The Militia then sets their house on fire, burning everything, even food and valuables, and beat her father up before taking him away along with Whiskey, who looks back at her as he is led away.

A driving rain saves Adele, her sisters and her father’s house. She leads her sisters away, walking by graveyards where Confederate and Union soldiers are buried together. Looking to find her horse, her own journey has just begun and so has the reader's.

The author, Paulette Jiles, prefaces each chapter of Adele’s story with factual, primary source documents from the Civil War era, magnifying the power and horror of this reader's experience. For example, a few hours before being hanged in a St. Louis prison, Asa Ladd, “prisoner of war” and Confederate soldier, writes to his wife and children, “I want you to tell all my friends I have gone home to rest. I want you meet me in heaven.”

The author’s decision to not use direct quotes for her characters is also an unusual touch and stands in contrast to the meticulous, primary source quotations that precede each chapter.

Jiles’ careful, singular style of writing seduces the reader along with Adele into the hills of the Ozarks, following the flow of the rivers, the magnificent, overwhelming wilderness of the mountains where only the women and children are left.

Reading Enemy Women, I experienced every woman's grief during the American Civil War in present time, right now, not a just a subject of history in our country’s past of injustice, slavery, and wealthy “Gone with the Wind” white column mansions of the deep South. I saw familiar ghosts of "enemy" women, which could have been my ancestors in a new, compassionate light. I can thank the author for that.

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Reading Progress

May 26, 2019 – Shelved
May 26, 2019 –
page 75
21.31% "This is my second reading of Enemy Women, something I never do. I admire it even more this time around."
June 3, 2019 – Shelved as: currently-rereading
Started Reading
June 24, 2019 – Finished Reading

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