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The Second Mrs. Hockaday

The Second Mrs. Hockaday

4.7 3
by Susan Rivers

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“TAUT, ALMOST UNBEARABLE SUSPENSE . . . This galvanizing historical portrait of courage, determination, and abiding love mesmerizes and shocks.” —Booklist (starred review)

“All I had known for certain when I came around the hen house that first evening in July and saw my husband trudging into the yard after


“TAUT, ALMOST UNBEARABLE SUSPENSE . . . This galvanizing historical portrait of courage, determination, and abiding love mesmerizes and shocks.” —Booklist (starred review)

“All I had known for certain when I came around the hen house that first evening in July and saw my husband trudging into the yard after lifetimes spent away from us, a borrowed bag in his hand and the shadow of grief on his face, was that he had to be protected at all costs from knowing what had happened in his absence. I did not believe he could survive it.”

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?

Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed. 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 that generation—and the next—began to see their world anew.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Based on true events, Rivers’s epistolary historical novel is a stirring Civil War–era version of The Scarlet Letter. Placidia Fincher is 17 when she marries Confederate Major Gryffth Hockaday in April 1863, after knowing him for just a handful of hours. Two days after their wedding, Gryffth is called to fight again, and he doesn’t return from the war to his South Carolina farm for nearly two years. When he does, he discovers that during his absence, his wife had carried another man’s child, who was born and died of mysterious causes right before Gryffth’s return. To protect the innocent parties close to her, Placidia refuses to give up any information about the incident, even after a heartbroken Gryffth orders a court hearing for infanticide. She bears all of the weight of this secret, until her diary falls into the wrong hands. Told through gripping, suspenseful letters, court documents, and diary entries, Rivers’s story spans three decades to show the rippling effects of buried secrets, when the Hockadays and future generations must learn to overcome the damage this secret and the war have done to all the families involved. Agent: Susan Ginsburg, Writers House. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
A January Indie Next Pick
A January LibraryReads Selection

“Suspenseful and satisfying.”
People magazine

“This page-turner, set in the Civil War South, is meticulously researched and beautifully written.”
—Woman’s Day
“…mesmerizing…. [Rivers’] masterful prose captures the nuances of Southern mid-19th century diction. Each patiently unspooled revelation feels organic, urgent and essential to its form. Placidia’s voice is penetrating and her observations about the singular truths of war are vivid and illuminating.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Charlotte Observer
“…brilliant… As the novel develops, Rivers intensifies the mystery and suspense even as she portrays the reality of how the innocent bride became the determined woman struggling to survive as her world is all but destroyed. Rivers accomplishes all of this by expertly crafting an unusual epistolary novel. Rivers’ deft development of the mystery keeps you reading; her portrayal of life in the South Carolina hills when the men were away at war makes the story even more powerful.”
Greensboro News & Record
“The psychological and physical tolls of war, especially on women, come alive in Rivers’ novel in the piteous yet gritty woman who is the second Mrs. Hockaday.”
Roanoke Times
“With language evocative of the South (‘craggy as a shagbark stump’) and taut, almost unbearable suspense, dramatized by characters readers will swear they know, this galvanizing historical portrait of courage, determination, and abiding love mesmerizes and shocks. Similar in tone and descriptive flow to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997) and with the compelling narratives found in Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South (2005).”
Booklist, starred review
“If this book is any indicator, Rivers is a promising talent and an adroit storyteller. Hopefully, this won't be her only foray into fiction. A compulsively readable work that takes on the legacy of slavery in the United States, the struggles specific to women, and the possibilities for empathy and forgiveness.”
Kirkus Reviews
“A stirring Civil War–era version of The Scarlet Letter. Told through gripping, suspenseful letters, court documents, and diary entries, Rivers’s story spans three decades to show the rippling effects of buried secrets, when the Hockadays and future generations must learn to overcome the damage this secret and the war have done to all the families involved.”
Publishers Weekly
“In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Rivers gives readers an illuminating glimpse into a part of our country’s past that still has repercussions in the present.”
“Fans of Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders and Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress will enjoy this solid historical novel, which is also a good choice for book clubs, as Dia’s motivations for her actions will yield great discussions.”
Library Journal
"I gobbled this book up in one in luscious sitting, wishing I could slow down and savor the prose but too eager to find out what happened. Rivers is an unflinching truth teller. Her characters are deeply human, drawn with compassion and exquisite detail."
─Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound
"Susan Rivers sets this spellbinding, haunting human drama against the backdrop of the Civil War. Told through exquisitely crafted letters and diary entries, the delicious pacing leads to revelations both intriguing and unnerving. I was sorry to reach the end of this stunning debut.”
─Diane Chamberlain, author of The Silent Sister
"With the Second Mrs. Hockaday, Susan Rivers viscerally evokes a bygone era without sentimentality. Her deeply sympathetic characters cope with the hard truths of slavery and war, maintaining their humanity and capability for redemption throughout. A thoroughly engrossing and affecting read. “
—Alice LaPlante, author of A Circle of Wives
“Lyrically and believably written . . . The dialogue, as one might expect from a playwright, is flawless . . . The book burns brightly because Rivers has created in her young heroine a beacon of innate courage and moral clarity which challenges us all to locate these traits in ourselves.”
Chapter 16
Library Journal
Placidia (Dia) Fincher Hockaday shares two days with her new husband, Maj. Gryffth Hockaday, before he leaves to fight in the Civil War. During the second year of his absence, Dia gives birth to a child. The baby's father, and the infant's subsequent fate, are at the center of the scandal that opens this first novel. Largely told through letters and diary entries, the narration, initially slow paced, accelerates as the story evolves and the protagonists' roles in the scandal unfold. Most of the story line is set against the stark realities of wartime survival, except for an awkward middle section that jumps to a future generation of characters trying to unravel the mystery of Dia. Once reoriented to the past, readers will find that, as with all wartime tales, brutality toward women and slaves occurs with depressing frequency. VERDICT Fans of Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders and Sarah Blake's The Postmistress will enjoy this solid historical novel, which is also a good choice for book clubs, as Dia's motivations for her actions will yield great discussions.—Tina Panik, Avon Free P.L., CT
Kirkus Reviews
Diary entries and letters form the basis of this novel about one woman’s experiences during the Civil War.Placidia Fincher is 17 when she marries Gryffth Hockaday, an enigmatic major in the Confederate army. She spends two days as his wife before his redeployment, when she's left to run his estate and care for his child by an earlier marriage. It’s at least two years before they see each other again, and in that time, Placidia bears a child, and the child dies. The circumstances of the child’s birth and death are unknown in the community but much remarked upon, mainly because Maj. Hockaday could not have been the father. When he finally returns from war, he accuses his young wife of adultery and murder. This is the first novel by Rivers, an award-winning playwright, and it’s a remarkable one. She takes a collage approach to her storytelling, advancing the narrative through letters between Placidia and a cousin, diary entries, and more letters, written decades later, which finally uncover the truth of Placidia’s circumstances. Rivers is adept at doling out information in teaspoon-sized increments, which makes the book hard to put down. And while the Civil War–era language can seem stiff in the early chapters, Rivers seems to smooth out her syntax as the book goes along. There are moments of loveliness amid the struggles and hardships of war, and Rivers is able to depict scenes of horror without exploiting her characters or manipulating her readers. If this book is any indicator, Rivers is a promising talent and an adroit storyteller. Hopefully, this won’t be her only foray into fiction. A compulsively readable work that takes on the legacy of slavery in the United States, the struggles specific to women, and the possibilities for empathy and forgiveness.

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

3982 Glenn Springs Road,
September 29, 1865

Dear Millie,

Dr. Gordon knew my father when they were students at South Carolina College. He did not realize whose daughter I was when he performed the examination of my baby’s remains; that is how I am assured of his objectivity, a rare attribute in local people of my acquaintance. While the extent of decomposition prevented a conclusive cause of death, the doctor reports that the child did not suffer trauma, and while drowning or suffocation cannot be entirely ruled out, he concludes that he most likely died of exposure. It was not the doctor’s opinion that I exposed the baby intentionally—that accusation comes from the magistrate. The doctor asked to speak to me, however, after examining the remains, and that is when we discovered our connection. I learned what an empathetic man he is (also rare). When Dr. Gordon’s son was fighting at Second Manassas, his young wife, unbeknownst to her husband, was dying along with her breeched infant in Leesville. The doctor was in Richmond on work for the government at the time, or would have been at his daughter-in-law’s side. In the aftermath, he worried that his son had developed a very dark outlook, believing there was little purpose in his soldiering when it had cost him the souls dearest to him. Dr. Gordon tells me that he has worked hard to persuade his son that there is a time for war, and when war has been put behind us at last, people will find a way to mend their lives and go back to the full enjoyment of life. That is our natural inclination, he says, and I understand that he means to be encouraging where the major and I are concerned. The soldiers who have lost much will be dissatisfied and angry for a time, he tells me, and may, in their confusion, lash out at the people fondest of them. This will be truest for those who served most loyally, yet for all their courage and purity of purpose found themselves in the ranks of the vanquished, trudging home with little more than the shirts on their backs. It will be more difficult for these warriors, he counsels. They have buried so many comrades, only to find that deliverance will elude them unless they can also bury their shame.

As for my reunion with the major, the moment was unlike anything I expected, despite the fact that I had rehearsed all plausible scenarios a hundred times in the months before he finally returned. Such a gulf stood between us, such a tumult of unexpressed emotions and thoughts, that we were rendered nearly mute by the anomalous quality of our encounter. I do remember that he asked me questions which I tried to answer honestly, if I could do so without implicating others. I took him to the spot beneath the swamp-rose where the child was buried. He wept (I had never seen a man do such), but whether it was for the child, for my sake, or for the wrong done him, I could not determine. One thing was fully evident: he is not the same man. Nor am I the same woman. Our experiences have marked us. Shaped us. And none of those experiences are shared. His hand looks strange with the middle fingers missing; more significantly, Millie, Gryffth has lost that raptor-sight that characterized his intelligence so splendidly. His dark eyes are flat—no longer interpreting, discriminating, divining. Maybe he had to sacrifice that gift in order to survive. Or perhaps it was torn from him in the violent battery of war. But now he only sees what is set before him. That is all he wants to see. Or needs to.

In marveling at how transformed he is, I strive to keep in mind that I am changed quite as totally as the major. It is challenging to remember the child who stood up before Rev. Poteat two years ago with a handful of spring flowers and a joyous heart, who trusted her fate to the good luck she had been born with and to a man blown into her path by the prevailing winds. Cousin, you asked me what transpired when I spoke with Major Hockaday on the morning of our wedding, after I told my father I would see my suitor before making a final decision. I shall tell you, but I doubt it will provide the unifying explanation your mind seeks.

I knocked before entering Father’s study, although it felt strange when I knew Father was not inside. I heard Gryffth speak and opened the door to find him standing at the window Q. V. favored, the Richmond papers lying untouched upon the desk.

Miss Fincher! he exclaimed, as if he had not expected to lay eyes on me again.

Major . . . I began, but faltered, not knowing how to proceed.

He was thinner than I remembered from the day before. More careworn. It reminded me that he had lost his wife less than three months earlier and had nearly buried his baby son. In addition, he had been far from home, fighting a war. His face was unshaven and his uniform, I noticed, looked shabby in the morning light, as if he had tumbled it with a bag of rocks before donning it to call upon my father and stepmother. He was as strange to me as a manatee, dear Cousin. Or an Indian chief. And yet I recognized that he was fully at ease with the man who stood gazing at me from across the carpet: he was open, authentic, concealing nothing—not even the diminution of strength and spirits he was feeling, considering his troubles. The scant value he placed on appearances was also evident in the way he looked at me. Since my sixteenth birthday I have been conscious of how certain men, especially those who lack good breeding, study me with their eyes, as if I were a confection being wheeled past on a cart. A gleam of appetite sparks in their eyes as they take in my face; their gaze moves to the rest of me and evaluates the substantive components along with the decorative ones, weighs the whole, and then returns to my face with the eyes now veiled by a scrim of pretense (easily penetrated, if they only knew!) that attempts to feign mild admiration not yet linked to acquisition. The major’s black eyes, however, did not rove. They fixed on my face and remained there, as if plumbing a body of clear water for its depths. Because their lucent focus was fully unfiltered, I was able to detect the slightest quality of apprehension fluttering there: not as if he feared to be revealed to me, but as if he doubted his right to engage my commitment on the same spartan terms of self-disclosure.

I cannot explain the impossible sensation that stole over me of knowing this man in the deepest recesses of his spirit, of knowing him as intimately as if I were him. Or him me. The thought made me blush, but I did not question it, any more than I had questioned the honeybee in my closed fist. Perhaps he read this in the smile I ventured to offer, for he stepped inside the wreath of vines I occupied on the carpet and ducked his head to look into my face.

I am not wealthy, he said at last. Or handsome. And I’m a long way from “refined.” In other words, I am not the husband you deserve, Miss Fincher. But this is what I know: to wake up beside the person you cherish and who cherishes you in return . . . there is no better refuge from the world than that. Whatever hardships may come. And they do come. They will.

He took a step closer. My heart was thumping so hard I had to sit down or collapse from lightheadedness. I sat. He hesitated, looking about for a straight chair to pull up beside me, but the only one in the room stood behind Father’s desk, and I could see he did not want to take that liberty. After a moment he improvised, resting his hip gingerly on the edge of the desk. His skin, as he leaned close to me, smelled like a sawn plank of cedar.

Despite what I feel, he said quietly—and what I feel is genuine, resolute—I will not presume to lay claim to such a tender and unsullied heart as yours, fair girl, unless you tell me I am correct that in the short time we have been acquainted, you have experienced affectionate regard for me . . . ? You “recognize” me, in some way?

He sat waiting for my answer, but not pressing for it. Because I was too flustered to look him in the face I studied his left hand where it lay on the edge of the walnut desk. His big knuckles gripped the carved edge, the brown skin weathered and crosshatched by scars acquired over the two years he had lived on battlefields and traveled rough country. Without knowing what I was doing I lifted my own hand and placed it flat beside his on the desk, spreading my fingers in a vain attempt to increase the span. His eyes dropped from my face to our hands and we compared them together: the dark and the pale. The rough and the soft. The tested and the untested. Husband and wife. We looked at each other then, and smiled. That’s how it was decided. As simply as that.

I believed him, you understand. About marriage being a refuge. I want to believe him still. But lifetimes have passed since I woke up beside my husband. And I can no longer claim to be cherished.

I enclose his second letter.

Your loving cousin,

Meet the Author

Susan Rivers was awarded the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for Overnight Lows and the New York Drama League Award for Understatements. She is also the recipient of two playwriting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has had short fiction published in the Santa Monica Review. In 2007 she earned an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, where she was also awarded a Regional Artist Grant from the Arts and Sciences Council. She currently lives and writes in a small town in upstate South Carolina. The Second Mrs. Hockaday is her first novel.

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The Second Mrs. Hockaday 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 3 months ago
I loved how this novel was written in the style of 19th century correspondance letters during the civil war! Part mystery and part look into the hardships of the civil war. The humanity and the grotesque of that ugly period in american history are both laid bare in this wonderful novel!
Myndia 3 months ago
Set in the South during the Civil War, this novel explores the complexities and horrors of one of the most tumultuous times in US History. Placidia Hockaday marries a soldier she has just met, and is thrust into the responsibilities of taking care of her baby stepson and her new home while her husband of only a few days is called back to the war. When her husband returns, he finds that she has given birth to a baby that cannot be his, and that the child has died in unknown circumstances. When she refuses to tell him (or anyone) the truth of the situation, he has her charged. Little does he know what she has been through in his absence, what she has learned about life and love, about herself, about the society in which they have been living and the vagaries of man in wartime, or what she has suffered while struggling to build a home and a future for them. The beauty of novels written in the form of letters (epistolary, I believe it is called) is they are so very personal. The depth of the relationship between the letter writer and the intended receiver dictates how much information is revealed, how much emotion is conveyed, and it goes a long way in giving the reader insight into each individual character. And somehow it feels so much more honest, genuine, and heartfelt. The other benefit of this approach in this particular book is the ability to unravel details of the story in small pieces, from multiple perspectives, creating a steady thread of suspense about the mystery at hand. It’s a well-crafted patchwork that brings the pieces of the story together beautifully. Some might find it disorienting or confusing at times, but for me it was a part of the joy of reading the book. It jarred me a little, but without creating any sense of disconnection. While I love historical fiction, the Civil War era is not one I’ve read much about, and it took me awhile to get comfortable with the dialects of that period. However, within a few chapters, I had made the adjustment, and I found myself lost in the story. I had just finished another book and had some time left before bed and thought I’d read a chapter or two. Instead, I stayed up late, reading half of it in one sitting, and sadly put it aside to finish the next day. This is a quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed. It heightened my interest in a period of history I’ve not read much about, and did such a wonderful job of highlighting all the complexities of that time. I’d absolutely recommend it. Note: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.
MaureenST 3 months ago
It took me a few pages to get into this book, but once I did it quickly became a read that I couldn’t put down. We are soon walking in Palacidia’s shoes, and what a life this young girl led, and where she found the energy and courage to go on is amazing. The book takes place in the South and during the Civil War, and more amazing it is based on a true story. While the text is mostly in the form of letters, and a diary, along with using the illustrations in books for paper, as it was scarce. We see the hardships these people faced, and meet slavery head on, and see it brutality and wonder why the fighting was going on. When you see her in jail, and at one point you wonder if she is going to hang, and it kept me reading as fast as I could to get the answers. Such a powerful story, and one shows the other side of this horrible war, and yet we see the strong side of preservation in hard times. I found myself rooting for her in both the good and bad times, what a great read, and I highly recommend it. I received this book through Net Galley and the Publisher Algonquin Books, and was not required to give a positive review.