Haunting Books: Three Historical Novels About the West

Each October I’ve devoted one or more posts to the “haunting books” I’ve read during the past year—books that stay with me long after I’ve read them. This year, I’ve been diligent about keeping a list, so I have more than enough books to discuss. In this post, I’ve decided to focus on three historical novels that take place during the Civil War and its aftermath.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

The first novel is Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, which is probably the most haunting of the three featured in this post. I hadn’t heard of the book until one of the members of my book club suggested we read it. On one level, it is a typical Western, featuring the settling of the West and battles between whites and Native Americans. On another level, it is a love story between two men who save each other from loneliness and poverty. On yet another level, it is about how far parents will go to save a beloved child.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who becomes a female impersonator in a saloon, then with his friend and lover John Cole joins the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The two men adopt a Sioux girl named Winona when the Army leaves her orphaned. After the Civil War, Thomas and John seek a peaceful life, but rejoin the Army to find Winona, who is being returned to the Sioux in exchange for white captives.

Barry is true to most of the tropes in Western novels—gunfights, war scenes, and chases on horseback (both slow and fast). Barry tells a rollicking tale, but unfortunately some of his plot twists seem forced, such as when friends and witnesses show up suddenly when Thomas is trapped.

What makes this novel is Barry’s prose. The language in Days Without End is gorgeous, if sometimes inaccessible. Barry doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue, which I dislike, and which makes it difficult to interpret sometimes. Thomas’s grammar is uneducated, but his words are lyrical, and the character makes surprisingly insightful comments. I often wanted Barry to be more straight-forward in recounting the story and helping his readers along, even while I appreciated his mastery of language.

This novel “haunts” me because of its gruesome descriptions of war, and also because of the uniqueness of the narrator’s voice. I recommend the novel, if you are prepared for a violent depiction of 19th century battles ranging from Indian skirmishes to the relentlessness of the Civil War. But of the three books I’m featuring today, this was my least favorite.

Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles is another violent story of the Civil War, though not quite as gruesome as Days Without End.  The Colley family in the Missouri Ozarks has tried to avoid involvement with either side in the Civil War. Nevertheless, after their mother dies, a band of Union militia (not the regular Army) attacks their home and arrests the father (a judge) and hauls him off to prison. When the only son leaves home, the three daughters are left alone. They head for St. Louis to try to locate their father. The oldest girl, Adair Colley, is imprisoned in a Union women’s prison in St. Louis, after she is falsely accused of being a Southern sympathizer, and her younger sisters seek relatives in Tennessee.

Through most of the first half of book, Adair is in prison and is mistreated by the matron and other prisoners. Major Neumann, the Union officer in charge of the prison orders her to write a confession so he can release her. She writes truth and fantasy (which together create a compelling explanation of how she got where she is), but she refuses to confess. Adair and Major Neumann fall in love through their discussions over her “confessions.” He helps her to escape, and although their plans go awry, she does get away and sets off for home. The second half of book describes Adair’s adventures on her way back home. Meanwhile, Major Neumann has problems of his own, but is finally discharged from the Army and tries to find Adair.

I live in Missouri and know something of the Ozark country where most of the novel takes place. But I knew nothing of the women’s prisons during the Civil War, nor very much about the violent and undisciplined militia units that supported the Union Army. The novel makes clear that there were atrocities committed by both Northern and Southern participants of that era.

Although some of what happens to the Adair family and Major Neumann was not very believable, it was a good story. Also, it was generally true to the history of the region, based on primary source material Jiles included for her readers.

What haunts me about this book is the realization of what war does to civilians caught in regions where battles rage. (I’m seeing the same theme in the Vietnam War series now available on PBS.) In addition, Enemy Women depicts the savagery of men (and women) caught up war, particularly when they are not subject to any kind of military order or discipline.

And I’ve loved the Paulette Jiles’s prose in every book of hers I’ve read.

Which brings me to News of the World, another book by Paulette Jiles that also has haunted me this year. In this novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging Civil War veteran, makes his living by reading newspapers to residents of small towns across Texas. He is dragooned into taking Johanna, an orphaned white girl who was kidnapped by Kiowas at age six (she is now ten), back to her white aunt and uncle. She has lived with the Kiowa since she was a small child and has been so acculturated to their way of life that she believes she is Kiowa. She objects strongly to being returned to white society and fights the Captain at every step.

But along their trek across Texas in the Reconstruction Era, which is full of typical Western adventures and perils, the Captain and Johanna develop a respect and affection that is both sweet and sad. It is sweet, because it is very real, and because they are two very sympathetic characters. It is sad, because it seems there is no way their bond can continue past the current journey.

Finally, the Captain delivers Johanna to her relatives, which does not go well. It would spoil too much to reveal what the good captain does next. I will only say that the book shows the power of love, even when love is not quite enough to rid the world of its troubles. I loved the novel for its spare prose and for the wonderful characters Jiles created. I wish we all had people like Captain Kidd and Johanna in our lives.

* * *

There are parallels in these three novels. They all have Western themes. They all have beautiful prose that is the envy of any writer. They all depict love found in unexpected places and families built from circumstances rather than from genetics. Days Without End may haunt me the most, because of its gory battles. But of the three, News of the World was my favorite, followed by Enemy Women.

What is your favorite historical novel?

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2 Comments

  1. My favorite historical novel ? “The Ungodly” by KC novelist Richard Rhodes. A first person account of the Donner Party…

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