Sidesaddle Rebel

A Missouri native hits the trail to make sure her Civil War novel is authentic in all details

May 8, 2002 at 4:00 am
"When I see my smiling face on the cover of Rolling Stone": Thus did Dr. Hook immortalize the ambition of every rock musician -- the unmistakable sign of having arrived on the scene.

Now, how about: "When I see an illustration of the heroine and hero of my novel on the cover of the New York Times Book Review"? That may not roll off the tongue, but it aptly summarizes what most writers strive for, and it happened to Paulette Jiles.

Enemy Women, Jiles' first novel and the subject of the Review's February 24 cover, has every reason to appeal to the American public. We love war stories, especially Civil War stories, and we love love stories, and Enemy Women is a love story set during the Civil War. Furthermore, we are fascinated by prisons and have a cultural complex of sympathy for the underdog. The heroine of this novel, Adair Colley, is a Southern woman who lands in a Union prison, where she falls in love with a Union officer and he with her.

The plot may sound a little like every story you've ever heard, but in fact it is based on a very specific piece of history -- and regional history at that. The author, like her heroine, is from the Missouri Ozarks, and the novel is immersed in a regional experience of the Civil War that has largely gone untold.

"I never heard any stories about local battles when I was growing up," Jiles says. (The writer was born in Salem but grew up in various central- Missouri towns.) "Then one day I was riding horses with my cousin when we came upon a Civil War graveyard, men who had just been buried where they fell."

That same cousin, Susan Lawson, would later join Jiles on a series of rides to test the topography of the novel she was creating, which places her heroine on some long, grueling rides. For those research rides, Jiles learned to ride sidesaddle, as Adair Colley would have done, though Jiles learned this skill in her adopted hometown of San Antonio, Texas, benefiting from the expertise of a local friend who trains a breed of horse, the Paso Fino, that is often ridden sidesaddle by women.

The author also did her share of more conventional research. Adair is imprisoned in St. Louis, as were many Confederate Ozark women during the war, and Jiles wanted to see the city through her heroine's eyes. Her guide for this was Likeness and Landscape, a book of daguerreotypes by Thomas M. Easterly published by the Missouri Historical Society. "I opened Easterly's book and was able to follow Adair block by block through the city," Jiles remembered.

If you join Jiles for her reading at Left Bank Books, you'll be able to follow Adair step by step as she meets her Union man in prison. If you like love stories, or war stories, or prison stories -- which is another way of saying that if you like American stories -- this one is for you.