“The Rebel Wife”
By Taylor M. Polites
Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $25
By Gina Webb
The best historical novel is the one we forget is a historical novel. Kind of like Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain outfit: We knew she looked gorgeous, the fabric and cut were stunning, but the only thing left of the original drapes when she sashayed off to see Rhett was a little fading from where the sun once hit them.
Taylor M. Polites pulls off just such sleight of hand in his gloriously gothic, moody post-Civil War novel, “The Rebel Wife, ” set in Alabama during the long hot summer of 1873.
It’s all here — an expertly packaged history lesson about the massive social and economic upheaval that was Reconstruction, where fortunes changed hands, the word “freedom” lost its meaning, and Yankees weren’t the only enemies of “the sons and daughters of the defeated South.” But Polites has concealed it as cleverly as Scarlett turned those drawing-room portieres into a fancy new dress and hat.
The plot is simple: Augusta, the daughter of a family ruined in the Civil War, is forced into marriage with a rich scalawag who made his fortune buying up Confederate land and businesses. When he dies unexpectedly of a gruesome blood fever, Augusta is secretly relieved, until she finds out that her long-awaited widowhood hasn’t made her rich, and further, the trusted executor of her husband’s estate — her own cousin — may not be telling her the truth about her finances.
Up until his death, Augusta never paid much attention to her late husband’s business, and, a Southern belle to her core, she felt humiliated by her marriage to a man who profited off her fellow townsfolk’s misfortunes. Worse, he was a “Negro-loving” Republican who once registered freed slaves to vote and presided over a bureau that guaranteed their allotments of land from their former owners.
With bankruptcy threatening, Augusta must master a steep learning curve if she and her young son are to survive. As she opens her eyes to the realities and dangers she was once privileged to ignore, a vivid portrait unfolds of post-war Alabama — Polites based the fictional Albion on his hometown of Huntsville — where her family members, friends and former slaves act out the conflicting interests of the day.
Augusta’s cousin, Judge, a pro-slavery Democrat, wants to control her inheritance as well as the exodus of the black labor force out of Alabama; her ne’er-do-well brother, a surly vet who already has squandered one family fortune, itches to get his hands on another; and a delightfully Dickensian cluster of Confederate matrons snipe and simper around Augusta while secretly gloating over her misfortune.
The white bigots and belles are realistic enough, but it’s in the nuanced portraits of the freed slaves that Polites creates his most memorable characters, whose complicated loyalties in the face of a new kind of bondage make it as difficult for them to embrace the new as it is for Augusta. In Simon, Augusta’s hired man, she finds an unlikely ally and confidant whose dignity and fairness finally breaks through her prejudice.
Emma, more mother to Augusta than her own, is the classic “mammy, ” devoted, loyal and “always there.” When Augusta finally discovers the true extent of Emma’s sacrifices, it confirms her growing realization that her newfound freedom is not so different from that of these former slaves — illusory and in danger of disappearing — and that most of the white men surrounding her would like to keep it that way.
Like Scarlett, Augusta is a woman on her own battling a greedy platoon of sinister good ol’ boys. Unfortunately, she lacks Ms. O’Hara’s vicious, sexy gumption — instead of making a dress to fortify her courage, Augusta opts for laudanum, and lots of it.
Fortified by increasing doses from her little blue bottle, Augusta wanders through a crumbling, Southern House of Usher, her senses heightened to a fever pitch, a perfectly focused lens through which to view the bizarre sights of this ever-changing landscape: from the brutal new Klan members in their “dark red hooded cassocks emblazoned with a white cross” to the nearly hallucinatory interior of an 18th-century cotton mill, complete with child labor, deafening racket, a blizzard of airborne lint, and “tentacled machinery, whirring at a wild pace like thousands of … whirling lawn mowers.”
“Impassive as a sphinx, ” this unlikely rebel watches her oppressors just as her slaves once did their masters, knowing better than to make plain what’s she has finally begun to figure out. In keeping with her mask, the prose is intentionally flattened, but there’s a scream strangling in her throat, and the terror and suspense have the pacing of a dream where you can’t move. A nasty cat-and-mouse game ensues, the murderous “red death” plague and the rising heat all play out together, and the powder-keg of brutality and hysteria build to a satisfyingly cataclysmic end.
Polites’ splendidly researched novel draws from period sources including the Civil War diaries of Mary Chestnut, Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ” Virginia Clay-Clopton’s “A Belle of the Fifties: Memoirs of Mrs. Clay of Alabama” and “Sara Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman.” “The Rebel Wife” offers a valuable new perspective.
By Gina Webb, AJC Arts and Culture blog