Monday, May 14, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Rebel Wife by Taylor M. Polites

The Rebel Wife by Taylor M. Polites is the story of a young Southern woman trying to get control of her life in the aftermath of her husband’s death from a mysterious blood fever. The tricky part is, she never had control of her life before his death either. Augusta (Gus) Branson is not a strong woman. She was brought up in the antebellum old money society that was destroyed by the war, and she was hardly more than a child when the war ended. Her family was shattered. Her destitute mother forced her into a marriage with Eli Branson, a wealthy and politically powerful scalawag. For ten years, Gus lived with material comfort but shunned by her old friends because of her husband’s activities. And suddenly, she finds herself widowed.

Widowhood frees her from a loveless marriage, but Judge, an old family friend, tells her that Eli’s investments have failed and he has left her with a mountain of debt. Judge promises to try to help her–he promised Eli that he would. She just needs to be patient and quiet and he’ll take care of everything. The strange thing is, Judge and Eli hated each other. Why is Judge the executor of the will?

Gus must now face life head on. Can she trust Judge? Eli’s servant/partner, an ex-slave named Simon, doesn’t think so. Simon is searching for a packet of money that he is certain Eli has left somewhere on the premises. Eli and Simon were involved with some shady dealings. So should she trust Simon? Racial prejudice and violence are rampant, and Gus puts herself and Simon at risk by throwing in her lot with him.

The story takes place in the heat of the summer. The plague that claimed Eli is spreading and people are panicking. Gus must protect herself, her son, and the few servants/ex-slaves who have remained with her, but she can do nothing without money. If the packet exists, she and Simon have to find it before Judge. The result is an atmospheric tale of a weak woman finding a reservoir of inner strength. Gus has to open her eyes to all the falseness around her and accept the lies and prejudices for what they are–and then move on.

I wanted to read this because of the post-Civil War deep south setting, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. With its political intrigues and hunt for the money and who-can-be-trusted atmosphere and time-is-running-out threat of the plague, it was more of a thriller than I thought it would be, except it wasn’t actually thrilling. It has a slow build. The language is very careful and the imagery of the heat is worked in to really make you feel sluggish. Gus languishes a lot, particularly at the start, but in her defense, she had never had to make decisions before. The laudanum bottle beckoned. It must have been tempting too to simply let Judge take over and pretend. But Gus does wake up to bring the story around to a satisfying conclusion. It’s an interesting story after all and well worth the read.

I'm adding this to my historical fiction challenge. Come on over to Historical Tapestries to see what the challenge is all about!