The Rebel Wife
by Taylor M. Polites
This book’s title and description captivated me the first time I saw it at my bookstore (by the way, did I mention I got a side job at my local bookstore?). When I first opened its crisp new pages, I was expecting to be whisked off to one of my favorite places: the Civil War-era South, with rows upon rows of cotton fields and Southern manners and a high society coping with their loss of money, relations, and culture.
Instead, I got the poor man’s version of Gone with the Wind. At 282 pages, it is pretty short, and while it has a lengthy bibliography at the end, it just seemed really… off. Some things were mentioned that didn’t seem to be historically accurate (not that I’m a big history buff, but were lawn mowers around back then?), and the way the protagonist treats her slaves/servants as though they’re almost equals is not typical of the time.
The book takes place a few years after the end of the Civil War. Augusta’s husband dies within the first few pages, and the remainder of the book chronicles her life as she deals with his demise. She doesn’t deal with it in an emotional way - their marriage was not one of love or mutual respect - but she deals with it financially, suddenly finding herself poor. She doesn’t tackle this problem like my favorite Southern heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, who grows food for herself and her family with her own hands, runs her own business, uses her charms to seduce wealthy men into marriage, etc. Augusta is the most spineless and uninspiring of characters who decides to go on a sort of treasure hunt with one of her servants for a bit of cash that her husband was rumored to have had in his possession before his untimely demise. Meanwhile, a horrible illness is sweeping the city and forcing people to flee before a government-ordered quarantine is put in place.
It was all a bit… awkward. The book felt like it was modeled after GWTW in that the protagonist finds herself poor after the war, she marries for money, the old gentry of the South don’t agree with her marriage and shun her, the marriage is loveless but produces a child, she’s still in love with a family friend from her childhood, etc. However, she is not Scarlett O’Hara by any measure. She mildly does what her husband asks of her, she knows that people are stealing from her and insulting her but does not bother to confront them 90% of the time, and she is addicted to a drug called “laundanum”. I know Scarlett had her battle with alcohol, but drugs?! Augusta is a flake.
I guess my main complaint was that I was going into this book thinking it would be a romance. Not the sort of “tender embrace” romances that are actually placed under the “Romance” sign at the bookstore, but at least something that would rouse some sort of emotion in me. With a title like The Rebel Wife, wouldn’t you expect the same? Instead, Polites seemed like she was legitimately trying to make an argument about society during this time period, and she wasn’t concerned with trying to disguise it with a respectable protagonist or plot. In between the many, many references to politics at the time, she makes the argument several times: women during this time period were like slaves. They don’t get the freedom to marry who they want, they don’t get the freedom to vote, they don’t get the freedom to choose to obey their husbands or not (especially when it comes to their bodies), they don’t have the freedom to conduct their own affairs or to manage their own money, and they don’t have the freedom to snub society and do whatever they want.
I get it. And I think it’s an important lesson we’ve learned. However, I would be lying if I said I preferred this social and political piece of work over the charms of Rhett Butler.
I hate to do this, but I’m going to include the book description to give an idea of how far I was mislead:
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.
It sounds exciting and a bit nostalgic, right? Oh, how disappointed I was!