Novelist and poet Paulette Jiles became nationally recognized in 2002 with the publication of her historical novel Enemy Women. Although many reviewers cited Enemy Women as her first novel, Jiles is in fact an accomplished writer with many other books to her credit, including another novel. Well before Enemy Women hit the stands, Jiles had become well known in her adopted country of Canada. Among her works are the memoir Cousins and the poetry collections Blackwater and Celestial Navigation, the latter the winner of Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award in 1985.
Jiles's first volume of poetry, Waterloo Express, met with an enthusiastic reception. It was over a decade before Jiles's second book, Celestial Navigation, was published. Containing twenty-one poems from Waterloo Express, the volume also includes many newer poems, comprising a "collection that derives its dynamic energy from Jiles's skill with language," wrote Books in Canada reviewer Judith Fitzgerald. Jiles's 1988 verse collection, Blackwater, was her first volume to be published in the United States, where she was born and raised.
It was the novel Enemy Women that became Jiles's first best seller. The Civil War-era story is based upon Jiles's own family history and on research she did on women prisoners in Missouri during the Civil War. Set in the Ozark region of Missouri, the novel recounts the wartime experiences of Adair Randolph Colley, an eighteen-year-old woman thrown into desperate circumstances with little more than her wits to guide her. After Adair's father is beaten and taken away by the Union militia, she follows the troops in hopes of finding his whereabouts. Instead she is arrested as a Confederate spy and consigned to a women's penitentiary in St. Louis. Amidst the horrifying conditions of the jail, Adair falls in love with the Union officer in charge of the facility, and he helps her to escape even as he leaves the post himself for active duty in the front lines.
Enemy Women became a best seller after it was chosen as the second "Read This!" selection by the television show Good Morning America. The book's success was also propelled by reviews and by the popularity of Civil War titles in general. Like Cold Mountain before it, Enemy Women reveals another side of the famous conflict, that of civilian suffering and the unjust incarceration of innocent people who were merely under suspicion of collaboration with the enemy.
Jiles's next novel, Stormy Weather, is a tale of survival set during the Great Depression. Jack Stoddard, a roustabout who liked his gambling and drinking, tried to support his family by working in the Texas oil fields, but he is exposed to a gas leak that sickens him, and he dies in a jail cell. His wife, Elizabeth, and their three daughters move to the abandoned Tolliver farmhouse that belongs to Elizabeth's family, where they struggle to pay the back taxes and survive on cornmeal and beans.
The Color of Lightning was published in 2009. Like Enemy Women, this novel also is based during the Civil War. The hero of the story is freed slave Britt Johnson, whose character was based on a historical figure. As the Civil War comes to a close, Johnson moves his wife and three children to Young County, Texas. He has dreams of starting a freight business, and his wife wants to teach school. Their dreams come to an end after the Comanche and Kiowa Indians decide to raid their neighborhood. Johnson is not there to defend his family, and his oldest son is killed, while the rest of his family and neighbors are taken captive.
In 2013 Jiles published the novel Lighthouse Island. Set in a dystopian America, where the city has grown into a single megalopolis and water is harshly rationed, the story centers on Nadia Stepan, who grew up in the orphanage system after her parents abandoned her. Fearing retribution after having an affair with her boss's husband, Nadia aims to seek refuge at a mythical place called Lighthouse Island. Along her journey, she meets and falls in love with the treasonous cartographer James Orotov, who helps her along the way.
When asked in an interview on the Southern Literary Review Web site why she switched from writing poetry to novels, Jiles responded: "My poems just kept getting longer and longer." Jiles went on to say: "I tried to write a novel twice and threw both away. Didn't understand anything about plot. Finally understood I was interested in writing an adventure novel rather than a novel of psychological exploration. Adventure novels have a whole different set of tools, different aims, etc. I always admired Hemingway but thought girls weren't supposed to write like that. The idea for Enemy Women came after I found that a large number of women in Missouri were imprisoned during the Civil War."
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