When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away? To what extremes can war and violence push a woman who is left to fend for herself?
Told through letters, court inquests, and journal entries, this saga, inspired by a true incident, unfolds with gripping intensity, conjuring the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel. As she comes to understand how her own history is linked to one runaway slave, her perspective on race and family are upended. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how this generation—and the next—began to see their world anew.
I haven’t read much Civil War fiction, not even Gone with the Wind (don’t judge!) but this book is an epistolary novel. My ultimate catnip! You could set one in a period I know little about (Civil War) or a time and place I usually try to avoid (World War II Europe) and I will still come running. Letters! Inquiries! Diary entries, oh my! It’s a voyeuristic look at history and I love it.
Rivers handles the epistolary element wonderfully, giving the letter writers different voices that fit their personalities, situations, and the era. She did a massive amount of research and it shows.
From the beginning there’s an unreliable narrator – Placidia is tight lipped about the child she’s accused of bearing then burying, but rumors abound and neighbors swore they saw something odd. What really happened? Just when you think you have an idea the letters jump 30 years ahead in time – the South is very different now, and these letter writers are as curious as the reader about what transpired. While the shift was jarring it was in a “ooo, who’s this!” way, not a “waitwaitwait what the heck happened” way.
It’s hard to talk about the rest of the story without giving things away but the second part of the book sucked me in more than the first. More than the new characters the promise of an answer to the mystery kept me reading. The ending brought closure to the main storyline and hints at the futures of many of the letter writers, but not all. It didn’t bother me, as now I can think about those characters and where life may have taken the.
The language and attitudes fit the times so if you’re sensitive about how slaves were (mis)treated you may want to skip this book. When I read about the South it’s usually scholarly works about the black experience so the jump into plantation owners’ heads rattled me. The book isn’t “yay slavery!” by any means, but it’s a dose of a reality I don’t spend much time in.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday is a bit out of my wheelhouse but I still enjoyed the writing and where the story took me. I also like knowing that the fiction is rooted in fact, right down to the timing of battles. I can’t enthusiastically recommend it to everyone, but if you like reading epistolary novels or about the Civil War you’ll probably fall in head over heels.
Thanks to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.