In 1936, when asked what Gone With the Wind was about, Margaret Mitchell talked about survival: “What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under?” she asked. “What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.” Taylor M. Polites’s debut novel begins and ends in Alabama, a decade after the end of the Civil War, but as with Scarlett O’Hara, its heroine’s defining character trait is an unrelenting instinct for survival.
Set in 1875, during Reconstruction, The Rebel Wife features an action-laced plot that includes hidden money, a mysterious plague, fire, gunshots, and an ensemble cast of personalities with violently conflicting agendas. At the heart of the story is Augusta (Gus) Branson, the widowed rebel herself, who represents the irrevocable, life-altering changes that Reconstruction wrought for even the most resilient Southerners.
The story opens with the sudden, dramatic death of Gus’s husband, Eli, who’s been stricken with blood fever. For Gus, their decade-long marriage was a loveless slog, a union she was forced to enter by her mother, and one from which she sought escape through a heavy daily dose of laudanum. In the moments following Eli’s death, Gus feels tremendous relief: “Widow. My mouth shapes the world silently. I have counted so many days until I could call myself by that name. Widow.” Almost immediately, however, gratitude for her newfound freedom is replaced by unrelenting concern about financial security—not only for herself but also for her young son. Gus’s cousin Judge claims to be the trustee of Eli’s will, although he and Eli were estranged. Judge flatly tells Gus her seemingly wealthy husband died a poor man, with massive debts, and though she doubts his claim, she has no proof.
Left no choice but to investigate matters herself, and with enough discretion to avoid making Judge suspicious, Gus begins to piece together clues about her husband’s life. Her servant Simon, a former slave, admits that Eli often sent him out to bribe Democrats and conservatives whose help he needed to protect his interests. A Republican and staunch proponent of helping slaves to become landowners, Eli has alienated more than a few local white Southerners, Judge included, who view him as a Yankee-loving scalawag. The day of Eli’s death, he had planned to send Simon to Montgomery to deliver a package containing five thousand dollars. That money is still in the house, but Simon doesn’t know where. Despite interference from other friends, family members, and even a former beau, Gus is determined to root out Eli’s hidden money before Judge or anyone else beats her to it.
The Rebel Wife is a novel of high stakes set against a backdrop of racially charged tensions. One of the most fascinating threads of the story follows Gus’s shifting relationships with her servants. She needs them now more than they need her, and that’s a startling revelation. Emma, for example, is a former slave who breastfed Gus after her own twin infants died decades earlier, and Gus admits, “Lord knows she was more of a mother to me sometimes than Mama.” Emma now cares for Gus’s own son, and Gus tells herself that Emma, like her other servants, works for her out of loyalty and love. When Gus discovers Emma’s plans to quit and move away, she’s shocked.
Unlike Gone With the Wind, which has been excoriated in recent years for romanticizing the relationship between former slave-owners and the people they enslaved, The Rebel Wife offers a more nuanced representation of the age. Polites’s extensive bibliography, the result of many years of research, includes fiction and nonfiction, as well as newspapers, magazines, and letters of the day. This research pays off as the story becomes more layered, and Gus, relying solely on Simon, sets into motion a string of events that can’t be undone. This so-called rebellious wife, who placated her husband while he was alive, now finds herself rejecting everyone’s advice and goals except her own. With a tale centered on a nineteenth-century woman’s struggle to find her voice, her strength, and her gumption, Polites keeps his readers riveted.
[This review originally appeared on February 23, 2012.]
Taylor M. Polites will read from and discuss The Rebel Wife at the twenty-fourth annual Southern Festival of Books, held October 12-14 at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. All events are free and open to the public.