I just finished reading Enemy Women, a novel by Paulette Jiles (2002) about women — really, a particular woman — in the American Civil War, for my book group this month.
I liked it more than I thought I would, but I will never read it again because it is too harrowing. The writing is eloquent, spare when it needs to be, poetic when it needs to be. The characters (two primary characters) are well-drawn. I did root for the protagonist, a 17-year-old girl named Adair, whose family and southern Missouri home are ripped apart at the start of the novel, midway into the U.S. Civil War, and who spends the rest of the novel wandering, then imprisoned as a “secesh” (successionist), and then trying to find her way home again as she suffers with consumption. Adair is engaging; she is, as another character puts it, “a brave and charming girl.” The novel is a bit of a romance, and the male lead, a Union soldier, Will Neumann, is also brave, a sympathetically drawn hero.
The graphic scenes of violence and cruelty, many involving animals (dogs, horses, mules), are nauseating, disturbing, heart-breaking, and no doubt accurate to the truth of that war and war in general. In fact, each chapter begins with actual newspaper clippings, letter excerpts, coroners’ reports, historical notes, etc., from or about the time, and many attest to atrocities. (I skimmed most of those after a while because I couldn’t make the connection between some of them and the fictional story.)
The note that begins chapter 30, near the end of the book, seems oddly incongruous to the narrative (perhaps it’s intended to be). From a 1997 book about why men fought the Civil War, the excerpt says that “soldiers … meant what they said about sacrificing their lives for their country. … Our cynicism about the genuineness of such sentiments is more our problem than theirs, a cultural/temporal barrier we must transcend if we are to understand why they fought. And how smugly can we sneer at their expressions of a willingness to die for their beliefs when we know they did precisely that?”
Whatever cynicism I may have had before reading this novel was only multiplied many times over as the characters exhibit every motive for fighting other than any belief about the rightness or wrongness of slavery. In fact, we learn, Adair and her kin and community in southern Missouri were not likely to have even had slaves. The motives for fighting and killing imputed to characters in the novel, while they by and large don’t include strong belief in a moral cause (that is mentioned only once, when Neumann is trying to persuade Adair to confess false crimes and admit the rightness of the Union’s cause, the last of which she readily does), do include hostility towards foreigners and perceived invaders, the opportunity to bring down the heretofore socially high and mighty, opportunity to make money nefariously (trading black market goods, stealing from the dead, taking bribes, etc.), revenge for spying, revenge for simply being on the “other side” or for trying to remain neutral, spiralling revenge for prior killings, and most strikingly and consistently depicted, a simple desire to make the “other” suffer, to inflict punishment and pain because one has the power to do it and because the “other” is other. Contrasted in roughly equal measure to those famous, feared and wantonly destructive men and women with a blood and power lust are the many folk who are living ordinary lives until they are essentially and violently conscripted by one army or another, who must kill or be killed unless they can hide in the hills or perhaps run a necessary convenience like a tavern for 5 years.
In another factual note, it’s reported that “For northerners … the enemy was neither the plantation-owner nor his slaves but poor southern white trash — ‘Pukes,’ as northerners liked to call them. Northern whites feared that they too could be compelled back into a perceived impoverished barbarism, as they thought of the Pukes, away from the increasingly mature prosperity and moral tidiness by which northern freemen justified their individual existence and purpose of their society” (from Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, by Michael Fellman, 1989). If this is so, it suggests to me that perhaps for many, the ‘moral cause’ for war, the thing worth dying for, was the protection of a comfortable lifestyle rather than, or at least as importantly as, a liberation of fellow humans.
My prime complaint about the book is that it reminds me too strongly of Water for Elephants, with its likable heroine and hero who emerge wounded and scarred but alive, and who, once clearly in self-defense and in a few other instances not so clearly or not at all, bring about what the reader is supposed to feel is “justice” towards despicable, loathsome characters. I don’t like to feel manipulated in this way by a story, and if there is manipulating of my emotions to be done, I would prefer it to lean towards grace and mercy, not the kind of “justice” that satisfies lynch mobs. I don’t need more practice in that kind of reaction.
The only part of the story that doesn’t conform to this pattern is actually held outside the story, when one of the chapter notes tells us that a homegrown southern militia leader (whom we’ve heard about in the factual notes but met only very briefly in the novel), who has killed and terrorised many on both the north and south sides, stolen horses and food from those who need it, destroyed families, and so on, was held for murder but was “eventually released and returned to his pre-war occupation as a Baptist preacher.”
A few excerpts from the book:
Jessie (the “witch”) says to Adair: “We are in the middle of many changes, and this endless changing is become disorder and people cannot long endure disorder. They’ll do anything rather than put up with it. Desperate things. Things that they don’t want to remember later.” p.40
Neumann considers: “The world was indeed made of jackstraws. The world was very combustible, the human body was partible in ways heretofore unimagined. What held the civilized world together was the thinnest tissue of nothing but human will. Civilization was not in the natural order but was some sort of willed invention held taut like fabric or a sail against the chaos of the winds. … Neumann has seen some truth that was completely out of his power to put into words. But he has come away knowing that even though the world of civilization was made of straw and lantern slides, he must live in it as if it were solid. Even when the heat of the lantern itself burnt away the illusions and a black hole appeared in the middle of the slide.” p. 297
One note, starting chapter 31 (p. 309) says:
“The people of the southern highlands would become famous in the nineteenth century for the intensity of their xenophobia, and also for the violence of its expression. In the early nineteenth century, they tended to detest great planters and abolitionists in equal measure. During the Civil War some fought against both sides. In our own time they are furiously hostile to both communists and capitalists. The people of the southern highlands have been remarkably even-handed in their antipathies — which they have applied to all strangers without regard to race, religion or nationality.” — from Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer, 1989.