Brimming with atmosphere and edgy suspense, The Rebel Wife presents a young widow trying to survive in the violent world of Reconstruction Alabama, where the old gentility masks a continuing war fueled by hatred, treachery, and still-powerful secrets.
Augusta Branson was born into antebellum Southern nobility during a time of wealth and prosperity, but now all that is gone, and she is left standing in the ashes of a broken civilization. When her scalawag husband dies suddenly of a mysterious blood plague, she must fend for herself and her young son. Slowly she begins to wake to the reality of her new life: her social standing is stained by her marriage; she is alone and unprotected in a community that is being destroyed by racial prejudice and violence; the fortune she thought she would inherit does not exist; and the deadly blood fever is spreading fast. Nothing is as she believed, everyone she knows is hiding something, and Augusta needs someone to trust. Somehow she must find the truth amid her own illusions about the past and the courage to cross the boundaries of hate, so strong, dangerous, and very close to home. Using the Southern Gothic tradition to explode literary archetypes like the chivalrous Southern gentleman, the good mammy, and the defenseless Southern belle, The Rebel Wife shatters the myths that still cling to the antebellum South and creates an unforgettable heroine for our time.
The Rebel Wife is one of those slow-burning stories that makes great use of setting, description, and hidden human motivations to draw the reader in. It's wonderfully atmospheric, and Polites paints evocative images of a once grand town slowly deteriorating in the aftermath of the Civil War. The story centers around the death of Eli Bransome, a controversial man who polarized the community by fighting for freed slaves' rights and who made many enemies by profiting from the post-war financial downfall of the town's citizens. Eli's death is unexpected--one minute perfectly healthy, the next dying from an unknown illness that causes blood to seep from the pores of his body. His death is terrible and frightening, especially for his beautiful young widow, Augusta--not because she cared for him, but because the executor of his estate tells her Eli was broke and she has no inheritance.
Augusta can't believe it. Her husband made enemies of most of the town and made her a social pariah, but she was able to bear it because they were filthy rich. She'd made their home into the grandest in town, flaunting their wealth while the rest of the town crumbled around them, and now her friends and neighbors are circling and watching, waiting for Augusta to be reduced to their level. But a tip from Eli's trusted servant sets Augusta on a search for the truth. Was Eli really broke, or are his enemies taking advantage of Augusta's situation? She begins to view everyone with suspicion and as she attempts to delve into Eli's life in search of his fortune, someone becomes determined to stop her. The town is suffering an oppressive heatwave, tensions are high and everything is deadly still. Everybody's watching everybody. Meanwhile the terrible blood sickness is spreading, and those who can are getting out of town. Are the residents of the town being punished for their sins? Everyone has secrets--the men ruined by the war, the men ruined by Reconstruction, the men who prospered from both, their wives, their servants. A storm is building, Augusta can feel it coming, but when will it ever break?
The Rebel Wife is beautifully written, but for me it was very slow. Slower than molasses in January, and I was halfway through before I was really hooked. And I can't say that I was too impressed with Augusta as a heroine--she spent a long time floating along in a laudunum-induced haze, and while she's been trying to kick the habit, those who seek to control her know her weakness and use it effectively for a bit to keep her compliant and unquestioning. At first she comes across as naive, but really she just hasn't wanted to know anything about anything, and I don't know that that's any better. She's rather selfish, cold, unfeeling, and not a great mother, but as she looks for her husband's inheritance she slowly comes back to life, she becomes aware of what's going on around her. She finally realizes she can't rely on anyone to take care of her but herself and she takes a bold course of action, but it seemed a little out of character at that point, or maybe it was just too long in coming. As the story neared its conclusion it became very suspenseful as everything came to a head with some surprising revelations and a gripping climax. Though I didn't fall in love with The Rebel Wife, I still recommend it as a worthwhile read, particularly for its insights into Reconstruction and the difficulties former slaves faced in the south, the tensions between southerners who were ready to move on and those who couldn't let the past go, and the disintegration of the Old South.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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