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And it is in these scenes, or so pages into ''Enemy Women,'' that the novel really begins. One senses Jiles discovering her craft as she practices it, and the narrative setup contains its longueurs. So do the substantial quotations from various historical documents that precede each chapter, which function as distracting sidebars to Jiles's story. In these, we observe an author who has been infected by the habits of thrift her backwoods characters are forced to adopt, an author determined not to waste a scrap of her research. The unfortunate result is an obstacle course of redundancies that makes it difficult for the reader to be courted by the story.

My advice is to skip the epigraphs and keep reading because something remarkable happens in the rest of the novel: it becomes inspired. Jiles, a prize-winning poet, can surely write, and even the disappointing early chapters of her book contain moments of eerie brilliance. Here, for example, is her description of a burning barn at night: ''It stood like a frame of thin wires of light, an architect's drawing in fire. Like the luminous outline of a barn drawn in phosphorus against the dark hills.

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And once the love affair across enemy lines develops -- a story, of course, as old as storytelling -- the modest precision of Jiles's writing takes on a kind of urgency, probably because the dramatic issues are never in doubt. Will Adair betray her brother and her neighbors? Will the lovers succeed in creating a separate peace? Will they change? Or, once separated, ever find each other again?

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The prison courtship of the major and Adair, played out against their competing loyalties, seems not so much to deepen these characters as to create them from scratch. We learn that Neumann's assignment to a women's prison has always embarrassed him; he's been desperate to see action on the front lines. Unfortunately for him -- but happily for the reader -- the love-bitten major gets his wish and is transferred to Mobile, Ala. Before his departure, he helps Adair escape, and they agree to meet at her father's house after the war.

At this point, the novel divides and becomes two stories, that of Adair trying to make her way back home through several hundred miles of wilderness and that of Major Neumann experiencing the horrors of war. Comparisons with Charles Frazier's ''Cold Mountain'' are bound to arise, especially with regard to Adair's odyssey.

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Her adventures in the ravaged countryside are much more credible than Inman's in Frazier's novel, and the characters she meets are not caricatures or symbols; nor is Jiles's ending sentimental. It may not be saying much to call this novel better -- Cold Mountain'' was overrated -- but the real excitement in ''Enemy Women'' lies in watching a writer become an accomplished novelist before one's eyes. As the narrative gathers steam, Jiles's descriptions come alive and her dialogue attains a homely authenticity.

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Consider, for example, Adair's conversation with a family of actors:. A distinguished epic of war, courage, and love, with a memorable heroine of passion and intelligence.

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As the novel closes, she returns to her Ozarks to find them changed utterly, while Neumann fights his way through guerrillas in his effort to find her. By emphasizing the relationship between women and the state, Jiles contributes to another prominent strand of historiography about the war: the politicization of women. Like Drew Gilpin Faust, Victoria Bynum, and Stephanie McCurry, Jiles explores the role of "public women" during the war and the way women's new status as enemies reflected "what the war has done to this world" pp. Unlike Faust, Jiles portrays most of her female characters as relatively distanced from ideological arguments; Adair hates the Union because it imprisoned her father and herself, and because Union-sympathizing militia terrorize her county, not because of ideology.

Scholars may also find this book useful as an affirmation of the importance of material culture. Jiles's eye for the role of fabric and clothing in her characters' lives rivals historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's, and she adds to that a deep, affectionate interest in the surrounding natural world. In those moments, Jiles's background in poetry and her prodigious knowledge of the area are unimpeded by characterization and plot.

There, readers have a sense of the mysteries of life during the Civil War.

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In many ways--not least including its success--Jiles's novel will be inevitably linked to Charles Frazier's enormously popular Cold Mountain. Both are journeys by white-belt southerners caught in a war they neither understand nor particularly care about.

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Both are love stories. Both portray home fronts terrorized by Union-allied guerrillas. Both muster closely observed details to portray how life was lived during the war. Any comparison with Cold Mountain , however, immediately reveals some of Jiles's weaknesses as a writer. Where Frazier's love story was subtle, hers is almost grotesquely obvious.

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Where Frazier luxuriates in moments of danger, Jiles speeds past them, anxious to reassure readers that Adair will be okay. These flaws dissipate the momentum that builds during the book's strong sections. Few readers will feel suspense after Adair's escape; few will feel emotionally invested in her too-easy love for Neumann; few will be entirely convinced by his flat, unambiguous character. Jiles's work is, oddly, more at home in its history than in its fiction.

In this aspect the differences with Cold Mountain could not be more stark.

Jiles's novel shares Cold Mountain's less appealing features as well. Like Frazier, she virtually ignores the role of black people in shaping southern society and the course of the war. Both novels seem to excuse this by placing their characters in lily-white mountain communities, but the exclusions seem particularly strange when Adair, like her Cold Mountain colleagues, travels through cities and past Union regiments, where she would surely encounter black women and men.