Sunday, October 11, 2020

Enemy Women: a very short review

I cannot get enough of Paulette Jiles.

This summer I read News of the World; this fall I read Enemy Women. I cannot think of two finer books with which I could have occupied those rare few hours when I sit down to read.

Enemy Women is set in Southern Missouri during the Civil War, and tells the adventures of Adair Colley, a young girl living with what remains of her family on the family farm in rural Missouri. In the space of just a few days, the farm is destroyed, the family is scattered, and Adair finds herself in jail, held as a prison by the Union forces in an attempt to force her to give up secrets about the Confederate activities in the Ozarks.

Harrowing adventure after harrowing adventure proceeds, as Adair confronts and surmounts one obstacle after another, supported by little more than her treasured horse Whiskey and a fiercely burning desire to survive.

And somehow, unlikely though it often seems during these episodes, Adair does more than merely survive; she comes through her experiences realizing that what she and Whiskey have witnessed is not just a cataclysm, but perhaps a new beginning:

The next day Adair woke up to a clean sky and the sound of Whiskey devouring the new bluestem grass nearby. She sat up in her blankets. Whiskey dropped down to his side and rolled over and wallowed on his back, his feet swimming in the morning air. He jumped up and snorted and shook himself. The forests of the Ozarks had never been cut, so the yellow pine and oaks were sometimes fifteen feet around at the base. They stood far apart from one another without underbrush, and it was good traveling then, through the greening world. At the seeps and springs, there were banks of violets and fern, sweet williams and miniature wild irises whose flowers were no bigger than a person's thumb and two fingertips held together. Wild pansies looked up with lion faces, the shadows of the new leaves were faint as the shadows of an eclipse.

At the next ridge south of Mungar's was an open prairie of grasses of several acres. It was what the people called a barrens. Adair could see for a long way. The hills poured out southward, one after another. The wind tore at her hair and she felt herself lifting like a kite. She stood for a long time to listen for the sound of a mill wheel or a church bell, or foundry or circle saw squaring logs, the ringing of an anvil.

The hills were silent. She stood listening for a long space of time. There was only the long wind singing off the top of the receding ridges and their heavy forests.

It seemed all the people were gone. Soon there would be some other world and some other people to take their place. The grasses on the little barren seethed in the wind with their new seed-heads, and the wind was chill, and so they went on as the road drove downhill toward the main fork of the Black River.

The seventh day of slow traveling found them up and moving by dawn. It was very cold that morning, for it was yet early in April and she wore the Zouave jacket and the down quilt over her shoulders on top of it. They followed the road as it swung along a steep hillside in a oak forest. They were southwest of Iron Mountain, and she had no idea what was the name of the road.

I love this vaguely biblical ("seventh day of slow traveling") passage, and its lyrical, eloquent telling of how harsh change is yet intertwined with the continuity of life. I love the graceful placement of human change within its natural setting ("good traveling then, through the greening world"). I love the way Adair feels with all her senses ("see for a long way", "hills were silent", "wind tore at her hair", "thumb and two fingertips", "devouring the new bluestem grass", "lifting like a kite", "swimming in the morning air"). And I love how the passage packs an cosmological eternity ("a long way", "a long time", "a long space of time") into an instant of recognition of the change that had come upon her: "she had no idea what was the name of the road".

In an afterword, Jiles describes how writing Enemy Women was an attempt for her to imagine what might have happened with her own great-great-grandfather, who lived in the Missouri Ozarks during the Civil War but whose full story has been lost to time. The Civil War seems like a dusty old relic at times, but obviously it remains a crucial element of the country's history and development, and really, it is not so long ago: consider this remarkable observation from blogger Jason Kottke that virtually the entire history of the country can be spanned by just three generations:

Last weekend, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. died at the age of 95. Remarkably, Lyon was the grandson of John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States. His brother Harrison Ruffin Tyler is still alive.

Jiles's Civil War is vivid, and immediate, even if she recognizes that most of what she depicts, and most of what anyone can in fact depict about the war, is the cloudy convoluted result of untold vaguely remembered tales:

She would not sleep in the tavern, either, not in any place, not in the kitchen or the woodshed but went to the barn instead with a wool U.S. Army blanket taken from Jessie's stores and slept in the barn loft over Whitkey's stall. Listened to him grind up the corn in his great molars, got up often to look and see if he were down or still standing on all four feet. For more than a week he stood with his leg drawn up and moved with great difficulty.

Still the men came. They slept in the mill loft or came to sit on their heels in front of the tavern. Many sat under the eaves and watched the rain come down, and some came in and looked at the shelves and said nothing, for they had nothing to spend. They listened to the June rain.

They talked in low voices among themselves and then there was laughter, for they were telling stories. They were making their past lives now into tales, and they were exchanging the tales so they could go and tell not only their own, but also others', and somehow this would make a sort of thin, fragile text or texture that might give way and might not, might hold, might be raveled out and be gone forever.

I love Jiles' stories, her own and those of others, and I would say that her text is certainly not thin or fragile, but rather does not give way and should hold. Adair proves to be fierce and resilient, and is (or should be) a heroine for the ages. I hope Enemy Women still finds new readers like me, decades after it was originally published.

Although it was far from her first book, Enemy Women was the book that brought Jiles her breakthrough success. Enemy Women was published when Jiles was 59 years old, but in the 20 years since then, she has certainly not slowed down, publishing five more best-sellers, including this year's Simon the Fiddler. I won't get to that one immediately, though; I've still got several more to catch up with first.

Thank you, Ms Jiles: I'm looking forward to reading many more of your wonderful books!

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