"Chenneville" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
I’ve been a Paulette Jiles fan since “Enemy Women” was published in 2002. Since then, Jiles has never disappointed, securing an abundant following when she published “News of the World,” in 2017, which was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. It was a good flick, but as they say, “The book is always better.”
Jiles has roots in Missouri, was born in Salem, raised in the Show-Me State and attended the University of Missouri at Kansas City. After numerous books and some career moves, Missourians lost the esteemed author to Texas.
In Jiles’ new, must-read, “Chenneville,” she gives a nod to her birth state, particularly the St. Louis area, her main character John Chenneville, of French descent, returning to the verdant, 700-acre bottomland farm his family owns at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. He comes back a far different man than the one who left home to fight for the Union, returning to a home he hardly recognizes.
A head wound, from a barge explosion, nearly takes Chenneville’s life during the war. After months in a field hospital, his brain injury continues to affect his memory and strength as he makes the journey from Virginia to Missouri. Accompanying him is Lemuel, who attended him in the hospital, a likeable petty thief who can lift a coin off another as if by magic.
Chenneville is apprehensive about his homecoming, feels while he was recovering there was “Something he was not to be told about.” As he enters his family home after being away for three years, only longtime servant Fermin greets him, shocked that Chenneville is alive. Chenneville suffers the same emotion, finding his home-place and acreage rundown, his father died during the war, his mother is ill and has left the family home.
When Chenneville’s uncle from New Orleans pays him a visit he learns of the tragedy previously withheld from Chenneville. His beloved sister, her Confederate husband and their baby were shot 5 months before, their bodies shoved into a spring. The suspected killer is Dodd, a deputy from Ste. Genevieve County. But what motive could have prompted the horrific crime?
With the authorities refusing to pursue justice, Chenneville takes it upon himself to find his sister’s killer, so begins his cross-state trek, which culminates in Texas. Along the way, Chenneville nearly perishes and mistakenly becomes a suspect in a murder when Dodd strikes again, bodies left in his wake.
Jiles is a master storyteller and her newest keeps the pages turning in a novel that highlights America in the post-Civil War years. Chenneville, a telegraph operator during the war, is an admirable, hero hellbent on retribution. As in all “journey” stories, he grows and changes as he pursues a heartless killer, along the way coming into contact with sympathetic, and not so sympathetic minor characters, and finally discovering a love interest, like a pot of gold at the end of his trail.
There’s much to enjoy in another fine offering from an author whose own life journey began in Missouri and culminates in Texas, where Jiles now resides in San Antonio.