I have read quite a few books on the Civil War, but was never that aware of how different the situation might be for civilians in some of the border states until I read this absorbing book by Paulette Jiles, author of Lighthouse Island.
The author spent seven years researching the history of the Civil War in Missouri, bringing it to life with this story of a (fictional) heroine for any era, 18-year-old Adair Colley. Jiles takes us back to a time of incredible brutality in Southeastern Missouri as citizens used the cover of war to exact vengeance on personal enemies or to act upon their greed, envy, or lust in ways unacceptable in peacetime.
As the story begins, Adair’s father, a civilian and a judge, is savagely beaten and taken away, and the Colley’s home is looted and burned. Adair must find a safe place for herself and her two younger sisters, and she is also determined to locate her father if she can and plead for his return. But as she embarks on her journey with her siblings, a spat between her and other travelers results in her being denounced as a Confederate “spy” and taken to the women’s prison in St. Louis. There, she forges a bond with the Union major charged with interrogating her, but even his friendship can’t change the unhealthy miasma of the prison, or the fact that they are on two different sides of an ideological and geographical divide.
Discussion: Jiles gives the Civil War a human face and even more strikingly, one that is decidedly female. Most accounts of the Civil War focus on the men who fought. Jiles shows from her dramatization of real events some of the ways in which the women suffered as well, and how they responded to what was happening to them and their families.
Jiles’ story of what took place in Missouri (punctuated by a number of excerpts from historical documents that precede each chapter) is also valuable because it could have easily come from diaries of civilians caught up in contemporary wars. The insight the records provide into the cruel and unjust collateral damage of war is considerable.
I really liked Jiles’ more recent book,Lighthouse Island, and when I saw this earlier work by her, I was quick to grab it. I could see elements and themes in this book that would reappear in the later book, although of course the settings are quite different. But they both feature women of courage and character. For those who like strong, resourceful female heroines who do what they must to survive, this is an author not to be missed.
Evaluation: Jiles is an adept writer who manages to limn scenes of carnage and destruction with a poetic eloquence that somehow adds to the horror rather than “beautifying” it. But she also lends her poetic hand to the pain, naivety, and hope of love, resulting in an unforgettable story.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2002