“Chenneville” by Paulette Jiles

Paulette Jiles’ newest one, Chenneville: A Novel of Murder, Loss, and Vengeance (William Morrow 2023) is a fine adaptation of a classic hero’s-journey archetype. It is both an action-oriented adventure story and a splendidly well-written literary novel about a most painful period in our history. As Jiles has successfully done in prior novels, she creates a memorable protagonist at the close of the Civil War and its aftermath, drawing extraordinary determination from someone who might well have stayed rather ordinary but for the circumstances of war, damage, loss, and the post-war lawlessness in the South. Her protagonist becomes anything but conventional as he hardens on the path he chooses. He is doggedly persistent and willing to give up any hint of a decent future to achieve the one thing he wants—revenge.

At the center of the story is a scarred man, John Chenneville, a veteran of the war who miraculously survives a serious head wound in the Petersburg siege. He wakes from a long coma, and with great resolve, rebuilds his physical and mental strength. Early on, Jiles shows us his mettle: “In three years of fighting, it had been burned forever into his mind that if you were not strong and unceasingly alert you would not live. He could not shake this. Nor would he ever.”

What drives him, though, is his desire to avenge the death of his sister, her baby, and her husband at the close of the war. He is told who the murderer is, so he does not need to be a detective. As it turns out, the villain, the allusive Dodd, is a serial killer. Yet, knowing he is hunted, Dodd heads west at such a brutal speed as to leave horses he rode to death in his path. Chenneville does not want to see Dodd arrested and tried; rather he wants to shoot Dodd dead himself. He does not care if he goes to prison for murder himself.

Chenneville crosses Texas in the winter across terrain unfamiliar to him, and encounters hostile soldiers, indigenous peoples, outlaws, and the misery of refugees. That he finds those who help him, those he is to help, and those who further endanger him is typical of a hero’s-journey format, but Jiles graces these lesser characters with such vivid descriptions they become as memorable as the major characters. Chenneville also finds—at least potentially—a woman to love and be loved by. That she becomes his ally is a given, and, as with Jiles’ other female characters, she proves formidable, hardworking, and outside the prevailing norms. A light-fingered male nurse is another intriguing character who flits into and out of the story with great page-turning plotting and whose talent for thievery proves fortuitous.

Dogged by a relentless marshal with a warrant to arrest both Chenneville and Dodd, Chenneville is ultimately joined by a solid horse and a loyal red bone hound on his quest. These animals become worthy companions in his long, hard journey and Chenneville becomes dependent upon them, as they are upon him.

Jiles manages to write in a style both sparse and yet remarkably beautiful and rich. Her descriptive passages excel:

The river was noisy far below, and the forest spoke aloud as one naked branch creaked against another and small dried leaves trembled on the greenbrier vines. The new moon swam up out of the horizon and into the heavens.

With one basic line, she can capture a scene and a mood: “The night came at John like blindness, like a dark sea. He prayed for the rising of the moon.”

Her plotting is reminiscent of her some of her prior books—a person at the end of the Civil War undertaking a lonely and dangerous journey across a lawless, disrupted landscape nearly destroyed by the war. That is, Texas where martial law—or no law at all—prevails. This anarchy of course adds to the danger and suspense in the book. This is a time, place and faltering culture where, as Jiles writes, “there was some doubt among the people as to which laws applied, if any, and to whom.” Over and over, she portrays the tensions this creates among the survivors and refugees: “It was a country devastated by war and still under military rule, so life and woodcutting and everything happened on tiptoe in a tense and listening silence.”

Occasionally, the plot seems perhaps a tad contrived, and she does indulge in some familiar Civil War tropes, though with her own imprint upon them. As such, this might not be Jiles’ best novel—but how, seriously, does one top Enemy Women and News of the World (a finalist for the National Book Award)? Yet it is a compelling, historically accurate, and immensely powerful, engaging novel. Fans of Lonesome Dove, Cold Mountain, and Jiles’s prior books will particularly find plenty to relish, and anyone who appreciates a great reading experience will find much to praise.

Paulette Jiles

Jiles, born and educated in Missouri, now lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, The Color of Lightning, Lighthouse Island, and News of the World, which was made into a Tom Hanks movie.

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