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Enemy Women

by Paulette Jiles

In the last year of the American Civil War, young Adair Colley, the heroine of Enemy Women, sees her family’s farm in the Ozarks of Missouri burned, despite their attempts to remain neutral. Adair is forced into hiding with her two younger sisters, though she is determined to make it back to her birthplace.

Reading Adair’s story reminded me just how central the Civil War is to the American experience. The country was nearly torn apart by this vicous, bloody conflict. Paulette Jiles understands this intimately. Though she spent more than 20 years in Canada (arriving here at the start of the Vietnam War), she was born in Missouri and now lives in Texas. Jiles has also chosen the background of her story well. The tensions that led to the Civil War played themselves out dramatically in Missouri. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 set the ground rules for statehood in the 19th century: the state was admitted to the Union as a slave state, but thereafter slavery was to be prohibited in new states north of its southern border.

Many of the incidents in Adair’s story are solidly rooted in fact. Each section of the book is preceded by apt quotations from actual journals, letters, reports, and memoirs from the time, though Jiles doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a compelling story. And the skill and artistry that won Jiles the 1984 Governor General’s Award for poetry shine throughout her writing. The story is by turns funny, moving, horrifying, and thought-provoking.