Collateral damage

Nowhere was the Civil War harsher than on its ragged border

Civil is the last thing you'd call the War Between the States. From 1861 to 1865, more Americans died at the hands of their fellow citizens than have been killed in all subsequent combat abroad. Even by modern standards of carnage, the hallowed battles at Antietam and Gettysburg still sound unimaginably deadly.

But those epics reverberate only in the background of "Enemy Women," Paulette Jiles's debut novel about the Civil War. Her tale skirts along the border of history, the bloody footnotes of violence across southeastern Missouri. A nominal slave state that never seceded, Missouri played reluctant host to Confederate and Union militias that stormed through the Ozarks in a reign of terror that knew no discipline or mercy. In a climate where neutrality was not tolerated, poor farming families found themselves harassed by thieves and murderers who felt legitimized by impromptu uniforms and homemade flags.

Jiles's story follows the alarmingly common tragedy of Adair Colley, an 18-year-old girl. Since the death of their mother, the Colley children and their father have struggled with some success to keep their humble farm running. Like the vast majority of Missourians, they own no slaves. They pursue no political opinions beyond wanting to be left alone.

But in the thicket of revenge and avarice grown up around them, that independence is no protection. When "Captain" Tom Perth and his Union militia descend on the Colleys, they see only "Rebel sympathizers." This is martial law, which these thugs take as a license to steal and murder with impunity. They beat Mr. Colley unconscious with a wagon spoke and drag him away, shoot or scatter his animals, loot the house, and burn down the barn.

Adair and her younger sisters find themselves in a blank-eyed line of refugees, trudging toward Iron Mountain 120 miles north. These victims of militias from both sides hope to find shelter near the Union garrison; the Colley girls want some word about their father's fate.

However, a minor argument with a fellow traveler complicates Adair's life even more. Accusations of spying, sabotage, or sympathy - cheap to produce, impossible to disprove - fuel a subterranean industry of revenge among these desperate people. "It was in that stream of walkers lone and frozen every one that someone denounced her to the Yankees." As soon as she identifies herself at the garrison to locate her father, she's arrested and sent to a prison in St. Louis for "enemy women."

History as art

Jiles is a poet, but she proves herself here a remarkably effective historian, too. Each of the brief chapters in this book begins with excerpts from Civil War letters, military reports, and newspaper articles that fill in the real-life context of Adair's experience with harrowing effect.

The brutality of the Union's program to quell rebellion was shocking to people on both sides of the war and devastating to the many dispossessed civilians who wanted nothing to do with the conflict or the South's "peculiar institution." Particularly appalling to mid-19th-century mores was the Union's policy of arresting women in an effort to deprive the rebels of their domestic labor.

With Adair, Jiles has created a stirring heroine, a courageous, sarcastic young woman inflamed by the injustice wreaked upon her but forced to negotiate with a system that's overwhelming. The St. Louis women's prison is a place of jungle law with disorienting touches of genteel civility. Women who survive battles with fellow prisoners and their warden suffer the consequences of long-term exposure to tuberculosis. But Adair endures: "This was all something that just had to be got through," she thinks. "It wasn't permanent, being a thief and alone and being stuck in this awful hell of coal smoke and brick." In the darkest moments, she prays only for God's benign neglect: "Lord, I'd rather you didn't pay attention to me one way or the other if you don't mind."

The road back home

How subtly Jiles introduces the romance between Adair and her interrogator, Major Neumann. A man of deeply felt principles, Neumann longs to escape the miserable task of extracting confessions from these poor women, but Adair's proud resistance inspires a degree of respect that continues to grow during their sessions. Soon, he's pleading with her to confess something - anything, make something up if necessary - so that he can help her get out. Her unwillingness to compromise herself only secures his devotion.

This unlikely romance is powerfully charged by restraint on their part and the author's. (Are you listening, Hollywood?) As their bodies are ravaged by war and disease, their love for one another sustains them on separate journeys that are sometimes breathtakingly harsh. Major Neumann eventually realizes "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."

Jiles's steely style never wastes a word across this cold mountain of desperation. In the stunned silence of what she's endured, "Adair knew there were many others also who had hoarded their light against all trouble and all assault and had gone down into darkness as well, without a word spoken and their names were known to no one. You would think this could not be true but it was."

If there's a ray of hope by the end, it's not the advent of dawn, but starlight perfectly captured.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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