Chenneville: A Novel of Murder, Loss, and Vengeance

Written by Paulette Jiles
Review by Janice Ottersberg

John Chenneville, a Union soldier, emerges from a months-long coma, discovering the Civil War has ended. He had suffered a severe brain injury in an explosion. Slowly, memory fragments return: his identity, family, friends, events. Partially recovered, he arrives back home in Missouri to be told of the brutal murder of his sister, her husband, and their baby. Post-Civil War Missouri is under martial law, and investigating this murder is not of importance. Burdened by grief and motivated by revenge, John pushes himself to recover his walking, riding, and shooting skills, and build physical strength to seek out whoever is responsible for this heinous crime. Word is that Albert Dodd is that man, and after the delay to recover, John is on Dodd’s trail headed toward Texas.

With lingering effects from his injury, he travels through a desolate, lawless land, ravaged by war, where mob justice often rules. Murder is his objective and his only acceptable outcome despite the consequences. This quickly becomes a cat-and-mouse game as hunted becomes hunter. Dodd is leaving more murders in his wake, even more reason to take him down. Now John is accused of one of Dodd’s murders, and, until his mission is complete, he must elude the federal marshal sent to arrest him.

Jiles is at her best when describing the Western landscape and creating the people who live in that violent, uncertain world where life no longer has value. Chenneville may have a singular, murderous purpose of revenge, but he is also a principled man, kindhearted and sincere. He is generous and sympathetic to those he meets deserving of kindness – a complex, solitary hero. With affecting prose and harsh descriptions of the realities of a desolate land, this novel is a standout.