The Rebel Wife by Taylor Polites explores the struggle of a woman trying to take care of herself in a world full of upheaval, where friends and society shun her, family manipulates her, and those who she always took for granted become her alliances. If the catalyst to this book can be summed up in one line it is, “Our world had changed so much, I guess none of us knew whom to hate and whom to love anymore.”
The story is set in the years following the Civil War, during Reconstruction, where the Union has won the war and the slaves of the South are new free men and women. The aristocrats of the novel are now faced with as much of an upheaval to their way of life as the newly freed men.
Our protagonist, Miss Gus, sets the temperament of the novel for the reader, “And always before the war. They say it again and again. Before the war. Before the war. It is our common currency. The only way we understand things.”
In this society, tensions between colleagues, family, and former friends remain high, as the issue of slavery still remains a dividing issue, years after the war is over. “Everyone behaves so cordially now…With so much that we all lost, how could there not be anger?”
It is in this society where we meet Miss Gus, who will soon have to question and challenge all of its norms in order to survive. As the novel opens, Miss Gus’s husband dies suddenly from an unknown illness, which becomes the catalyst to Miss Gus’s growth and the progression of the story. As Miss Gus begins to settle their estate and move forward with her life she begins to uncover many details about her husband, his business, his political activities, the circumstances surrounding their courtship and marriage, and her place among her family and friends in society.
Her husband’s death has lifted a protective veil that she never knew she wore, and she begins to discover just how alone she really is. The arch of this novel is really the character of Miss Gus. Her progression and growth represents the adjustment that many rebel men and women had to acclimate to as the life they knew was overthrown, and they had to decide what side of the divide they were on.
Told in the first person limited point of view, we the readers are tied to Miss Gus and her journey from average southern woman to heroine. Miss Gus’s character begins as a stereotype of what we expect for a southern woman of her time; she accepts the new laws yet keeps a separation between her and the servants who work for her.
She also naively believes that those around her also share this tolerant view and her trust remains in the Southern way of life and its culture. Following her husband’s death, she puts her trust in Judge, her mother’s cousin, to settle the estate and in turn take care of her and her monetary affairs, even though Judge and her husband were political rivals in regards to rights of the newly freed men.
Although we do not immediately like Miss Gus, we soon begin to root for her in spite of her flaws. Because we are immersed in her point of view, we begin to decipher her real thoughts and feelings from those that society had instilled in her as proper, and note how the people around her are trying to manipulate her. “These are not the women I knew during the war. They are changed women – changed faced that I cannot recognize.”
As soon as we soften to this character, we are wrapped up in the action as it unfolds and in her thoughts as she tries to make sense of everything that she is being told in relation to everything that she knows. We are confused and angry when we find out that the people who are supposed to be taking care of her are the worst villains, we root for her to find her compassion and strength, and we cheer when she finally takes charge of herself and her household.
As the novel progresses, Miss Gus not only uncovers her husband’s business and political affairs, but she learns who he was as a man. She had known her husband helped found the freedman’s bank and promoted the colored vote, but she did not realize how extensive his assistance was, being told “He did more for us than many people have. Other than Mr. Lincoln.”
It is once she begins to understand what her husband was working for that she begins to see those around her for who they really are. She sees that those who she trusted have been lying to her, and will continue to manipulate her to get what they desire, and that Simon (her servant) has been trying to help her.
She begins to see her servants, Emma, Simon, Rachel, and John, not as servants, but as people who are trying to make their own way in the world, just as she will now have to do. It is at this point in the novel, where her attitude changes from ambivalence to respect, and she begins relying on Simon for information. This is when we know that she will become the heroine that we are hoping for.
Throughout the novel I was carried along with the right amount of suspense and resolution to peak and satisfy my curiosity. I kept turning the pages and telling myself that I would stop at the chapter break, but was unable to put it down. I will not give away the ending, but I will say that those who have invested themselves in Miss Gus’s character will be satisfied with the conclusion. Also, I am always a big fan of learning a bit of history and anthropology as I am carried through an intriguing story
This book is an interesting, emotional, and engrossing look into a character who illuminates the Reconstruction Era, women, and their place in southern society. Though this novel is very time and location specific, it speaks to a greater theme, it is a comment on women, the strength a woman needs to battle the social mores of the time in favor of what she believes is morally right. This is a theme that will grab and resonate with readers across many demographics.