Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Rebel Wife - Taylor M. Polites

Summary:  Augusta Branson, born of a prominent Southern family made destitute by the Civil War, is forced into marriage with a wealthy upstart.  Ten years after her marriage and the end of the war, she watches her husband, Eli, die from a horrifying blood fever.

Newly widowed, Augusta begins to wake to the realities that surround her:  her social standing is stained by her marriage, she is alone and unprotected in a community that is being destroyed by racial prejudice and violence, the fortune she thought she would inherit does not exist, and the deadly blood fever is spreading like wildfire.  Nothing is as she believed, everyone she trusts is hiding something from her, and if Augusta can't find a missing package, she and her son face certain death.

Using the Southern Gothic tradition to subvert literary archetypes likes the chivalrous Southern gentleman, the good mammy, and the defenseless southern belle, The Rebel Wife shatters the myths that still cling to the antebellum South and creates an unforgettable heroine for our time.  (Summary from book - Image from - Book provided free for an honest review)

My Review:  Augusta Branson is a recently widowed southerner caught up in the chaos of Reconstruction. While the executor to her husband’s will claims that money has run out, Augusta and others aren’t so sure. As racial and political tensions mount, sickness begins to spread throughout the land and Augusta must uncover the truth and find a missing parcel that, if it exists, could be her family’s salvation.

The Rebel Wife exposes the South as a region plagued by corruption, racism, political maneuvering, poverty, greed, sickness, cruelty and paranoia following the Civil War. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know enough about this period of history to gauge this books authenticity – my knowledge of the era is based entirely on Gone with the Wind – but my gut tells me that it was infinitely more realistic, and less glamorous, than anything starring Clark Gable and Viven Leigh.  On each page, I could feel the oppressive heat, the stifling humidity, and the crackle of racial tension. 

Some might say that writing a character you can’t help but hate is a sign of excellent writing. If that is the case, then Polites’ has a bright future. The vicious racism and undiluted ignorance displayed by most of the white characters was difficult to stomach. Though some were more openly hostile than others, they all made my blood boil. Unfortunately, this also made it difficult for me to connect with the story or invest in the characters, including Augusta. Freed slaves, Simon, Emma, and Rachel, were another matter.

Augusta is hardly an “unforgettable heroine for our time”. She spent most days wringing her hands, whining about the heat, and waiting on the men in her life to save her. I loathe weak-willed female characters and although I’m sure this was asomewhat authentic female behavior for the times, I wanted to shake Augusta senseless and tell her to grow a spine. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I felt any kind empathy towards her. Yes, eventually she transforms from a paranoid, naïve, and helpless waif into a fierce woman with her own mind and mettle – it just took a really long time.

My main complaint about this novel is really a matter of personal preference. The author chose to write in first-person present tense and often used short, choppy sentences as a matter of style. For example:

"Henry climbs on his narrow bed beside me. His solitary games always stop when I appear. He wraps his arms around me and lays his head on my lap. His hair is like corn silks under my fingers. I am petting him. My pet. He breathes out of his nose in short, discontented bursts. His is confused by all this emotion.”

I’m not a fan of first-person, present tense; for some reason I prefer the comfort of –ed endings. Usually I can push these feelings aside, but the frequent addition of short sentences made Polites’ writing feel stilted. About halfway through the story, things began to pick up and I stopped noticing the short sentences, but until then I had a very difficult time keeping my mind in the book.

My favorite moment in this book was near the end when Augusta had a conversation with Rachel, one of the black women who worked in her household, who was helping her bathe. Augusta always thought Rachel was “too familiar” with white folks, but this conversation changed something between them:

"Miss Gus,” she begins suddenly, “I know there were white folks who tried to be good to their people under slavery, but there ain’t a way you can be good to someone when you’re taking things away from them. And that’s what slavery was, people taking things that weren’t theirs. Their work. Their bodies. Their love for themselves. And we’re free now, all of us. God has given us our freedom. But He says it’s up to us to do something with our freedom. ‘Cause there are always going to be people who want to take things from you. Some of them are white folks, and some of them are colored folks, even. It’s the way God made the world. There are always going to be people trying to take your freedom away. John and me, we know that we’ve got to fight to keep free…”

Overall, The Rebel Wife is not for the impatient reader. It had some very tense moments and some rather dull ones, but ultimately it showed how hatred, bitterness, and the horrors of war can bring out the very worst, or the very best, in people. Augusta’s story may have taken a while to unfold, but I am glad that I stuck around till the end.

My Rating: 3 stars, but just barely. If it hadn’t ended the way it did, I would have rated this in the high two’s.

For the sensitive reader: A few instances of profanity (nothing major) and numerous racial slurs (the N* word, primarily), which are expected given the context of the story. Some racially-motivated violence typical of the times and a mildly graphic sexual assault.

Sum it up: The Rebel Wife reveals a seamy side to the oft-portrayed genteel south.


Tribute Books said...

Mindy, thank you for taking the time to read and review Taylor's book.

Jessica L Buike (AuthorJess and Operation Relax) said...

Sounds like it was not as pleasant to review - I've so been there! I linked to your review today on my blog:

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I've been tempted to add this to Goodreads...but not now.

MindySue said...

Oh, come on Melissa! You and I usually disagree on reviews. You'd probably love this!

MindySue said...

Thanks Jessica! It wasn't as bad as all that. There were some great parts and I liked how it all turned was the getting there that took a while.

MindySue said...

Anytime. :)

Anonymous said...

"The Rebel Wife reveals a seamy side to the oft-portrayed genteel south"....Well, all I can say is it's about damn time: In this supposedly enlightened day & age, we can't swing a dead cat without being subjected to glowing depictions of all things Southern - and I for one have had a bellyful.

We must rise up and overthrow these descendants of those slave-drivers & woman-whippers, who've usurped Hollywood, the news media & academia!


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