Chenneville: A Novel of Murder, Loss, and Vengeance
“This epic quest with its strands of love and loss frames an American exploration of family, grief, honor, and deep humanity in an unforgettable fashion.”
The War Between the States ripped families apart and devoured their security, especially south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In Chenneville, Paulette Jiles plunges into the horror of that division and the residues of militarized American men, through First Lieutenant “John” Chenneville, whose brain injury (from a piece of anchor chain in an explosion) removed him from the final actions of the war.
His recovery in Grant’s Virginia field hospital brings him consciousness: “He had arrived, like it or not, back into this world. While he had lain for months half-conscious and drifting, carefully fed and tended as he floated in some bright pallid neverland, Lee had surrendered, Lincoln had been assassinated, and the great Union Army had gone home. They had left behind only the troops of the occupation and the wounded. The war was over.”
For Jean-Louis Chenneville, peace has arrived with an unbearable price: While Chenneville lay helpless, his family shattered—a gun-happy and amoral man known only, or guessed at, as “Dodd,” killed John’s sister Lalie, her Confederate husband, and their young child. Added casualties of this attack include his mother, who is now detached from reality, and the family farm, nearly deserted, with damaged fields, no income, and only a place-holding servant or two waiting for recovery.
Grief and rage become John’s daily portion. Determinedly regaining his physical health (though his scalp is permanently scarred, his strength uncertain), he tugs the farm upward, just far enough to sustain it. “He told himself that as soon as he could ride the mare at speed and walk the crossbeam in the barn as he used to do as a child, he would begin looking for her killer.”
Fermin, the farmhand and house manager who’s held the place together, assures John that he's always had the courage for this, even though it takes a year of recovery. “A year is a long time to wait,” John worries. Fermin’s reply reveals his own support for the mission to catch the murderer: “At the end of the year, the man who did it will still be guilty. And Lalie and her family will still be dead.”
When John departs on a journey intended to bring down vengeance upon the killer, his presence on that trail is quickly known to Dodd, who both flees cross-country and attempts to murder John himself. That necessitates a change of identity, with new papers, in order to travel incognito across a landscape still torn by war and hunting traitors and criminals. John is only one of those on the road with such missions, and his isn’t official. He asks himself how long he’ll keep this up: “For the murder of someone in your family you search until Hell freezes over and the stars wink out, until either he or you are dead. One or the other.”
Jiles brings to the pages careful language that offers both the flavor of John’s French family and thinking, and the raw new ferocity of the new nation’s westward expansion. Passages of interior commentary alternate with sharp action scenes and pointed collisions among the men roaming around John; his interactions with horses and dogs and abandoned women reveal his soul. His observations set and re-set the changes around him: “Back in the pines he saw four tiny cabins all in a row. Slave cabins. He had seen them often enough in Missouri, and now they seemed like the inert, dead evidence of an ancient human injustice or quarrel.”
A curious thread of human interaction finally begins to keep John company on his perilous journey into the harsh lands of the West, even deep into Texas: Thanks to his own background of both commerce and military, he can send Morse code as well as any telegrapher—and his messages of search for the killer link him to a woman telegrapher who offers concern. Would she assist him if he reached her in person, although she’s aware that he’s on a self-propelled manhunt? How may the forces of law, which failed to pursue Lalie’s murderer, turn against John’s drive for vengeance?
Jiles has her own delicate and unmistakable “hand” on the keys of the messages. When Chenneville reaches its unexpected finale, the shock and impact of the final twists are all the more powerful for the tender way this author unfolds them. Like her earlier historical novel, News of the World, also set after the Civil War, this epic quest with its strands of love and loss frames an American exploration of family, grief, honor, and deep humanity in an unforgettable fashion.