Review: The Rebel Wife

The Rebel Wife

by Taylor Polites

Simon and Schuster, $25 hardcover, ISBN-13 978-1451629514, February 7, 2012

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.

Debut novelist Taylor M. Polites tidily upends the stereotypes popularized by traditional Southern fiction novels and films in this suspenseful portrait of a sheltered woman coming to terms with her precarious existence as well as her own prejudice.

Although her older brother died in battle and the fortunes of many friends fell, former Southern belle Augusta, known as Gus, knew little hardship in the years following the Civil War. While marriage to Republican “scalawag” Eli Branson destroyed Augusta’s reputation, his prosperity allowed her to live in a fine house, buy expensive jewelry, and hire ex-slaves as servants. Now, ten years later, Eli dies, and Gus learns her husband’s investments have failed. Frightened by the sweating sickness blazing through town and hemmed in by the very men who say they’ll protect her, Gus slowly comes to understand that like her servants, she is free in name only. She must choose whether to trust her kinsman Judge Heppert, a local legend who claims to legally control Eli’s estate, or help her husband’s black manservant Simon find a missing package Eli never sent that may contain enough money to solve all of their problems.

The dripping Alabama heat, intricate social customs, and constant tension lend a traditional Southern Gothic feel, but Gus’s subtle chemistry with Simon, her growing awareness of corruption in the men she respected, and her understanding combine to present a fresh, modern take on the Southern Gothic novel. A fiery, feminist debut, The Rebel Wife heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in historical fiction.

See how professional this review looks? That’s because this review was originally intended to run in Shelf Awareness, but it and another review of mine got lost in cyberspace or spam filtration and never made it, which is a shame since both reviewed books deserved a mention, especially this one, which I intended to use in a Shelf Unawareness post. Here’s my less professional opinion:

I did not want to read this book because the marketing leaflet compared it to Gone with the Wind, which I have loathed since I got old enough to think, “Holy CRAP, this book is racist!” GWTW gives me so much white guilt, I will briefly pretend to believe my mother’s assertion that we’re part American Indian (one of the tribes that starts with a C, to be precise) just so I feel less white. I think any book that romanticizes the Old South, which was basically a third world country, does a disservice to our national identity and keeps that North/South tension alive unnecessarily.

Happily, the marketing leaflet was not lying when it said that while I would recognize elements of GWTW, they would be turned inside-out to reflect a more modern concept of history. Here’s the picture this book paints of the Reconstruction Era South: Women are property, just as they were during the antebellum period. Black people–who have been legally emancipated–are property, just as they were during the antebellum period. Rich whites lost fortunes, relatives, and, in some cases, a few teeth during the Civil War, but they still expect to live to a certain standard and some do with the help of severely underpaid “servants” who are no better off than they were during slave days.

Gus is totally hemmed in because of her sex. Men control everything she does, and even when she tries to break free, the cage doors keep slamming in her face…for her “protection,” of course. Her acceptance of this setup and her attitudes toward her servants irritated me at first. Of course it’s realistic, but it’s hard for the modern woman to not think, “Grow a spine. Also, stop acting like your servants are lucky they get to empty your chamber pot and iron your sheets. Have you no sense?” However, as the story goes on, she actually gets some sense! She has epiphanies! I was cheering her on enthusiastically by the end of the story. I also loved that she slowly came to see Simon as a man instead of a lower life form. Their relationship grows in subtle ways, almost as though you’re imagining it at first. The development is believable, as Gus denies to herself that any connection exists between them. Finally, their bond builds to the point that my Goodreads status read, “Dear heroine: Please just throw your dead husband’s black manservant down in the hay and go for it. All three of us will feel better if you do. Kthx.”

So…did they find the money? Did the good guys win? Did the black characters pull up stakes and move on to a better life in Kansas? And most importantly, did Gus throw Simon down in the hay and go for it? Well, fiddle-dee-dee. I’m not sayin’.

Civil War reenactors

These brave men fought and died to preserve the Union...and so we could make out with anyone we saw fit, regardless of race.

My Ratings

Concept: 4

Writing: 4

Character Development: 4

Plot: 4

Pacing: 4

Ending: 5

Cover Art: 5

Overall: 4.25

***I received this book as an ARC from Shelf Awareness, so anything I say refers to the ARC edition. While I do get paid for my Shelf reviews, my opinions are my own and no one paid me to talk about the awesomeness of this specific book.***