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The Widow's War

The Widow's War

4.0 239
by Sally Cabot Gunning

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In a small Cape Cod village in 1761, one woman is about to engage in the struggle of her life, defying her family, friends, and neighbors in a fight for her freedom that resonates even today…

When was it that the sense of trouble grew to fear, the fear to certainty? When she sat down to another solitary supper of bread and beer and pickled cucumber? When she heard


In a small Cape Cod village in 1761, one woman is about to engage in the struggle of her life, defying her family, friends, and neighbors in a fight for her freedom that resonates even today…

When was it that the sense of trouble grew to fear, the fear to certainty? When she sat down to another solitary supper of bread and beer and pickled cucumber? When she heard the second sounding of the geese? Or had she know that morning when she stepped outside and felt the wind? Might as well say she knew it when Edward took his first whaling trip to the Canada River…

Editorial Reviews

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To open this novel is to enter 18th-century American history, as Gunning re-creates a Cape Cod whaling village to tell the absorbing story of her determined protagonist, Lyddie Berry. When Lyddie's husband, Edward, leaves on a fishing expedition, it is the last time she will see him alive. Lost at sea, Edward has left Lyddie a widow. But a widow in 18th-century Massachusetts didn't have the rights widows now have, and Lyddie's grief soon turns to smoldering anger as she watches her husband's home and property handed over to her officious son-in-law.

As a widow, Lyddie is entitled to a third of her home and faces a choice: either inhabit that small section or receive a third of the price should her son-in-law sell the house. Shocked by the unfairness of such terms, Lyddie refuses to acquiesce and soon squares off against her son-in-law, alienating herself from her daughter. In short order, Lyddie becomes an outcast. Nearly destitute, she turns to her Indian neighbors for help. In so doing, Lyddie plumbs a newfound strength and tenacity and forges a new life for herself -- a life of unheard-of independence. What is perhaps most fascinating about The Widow's War is the consideration of all that has changed since those early days -- and all that has stayed the same. (Spring 2006 Selection)
Anita Shreve
Many historical novels die on the page, the characters never having drawn breath. In Gunning's capable hands, a novel of history is allowed to be as vivid as the smell of a man: "Tobacco and sweat, but a different sweat, and something like sassafras but not sassafras."
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Mystery author Gunning (Fire Water) moves to literary historical with this provocative tale of a whaling widow determined to forge a new life in colonial Cape Cod. When Lyddie Berry's husband drowns in 1761, her grief is compounded by the discovery that he's willed her the traditional widow's share-one-third use, but not ownership, of his estate. Lyddie's care, and the bulk of the estate, have been entrusted to their closest male relative, son-in-law Nathan Clarke, husband to their daughter Mehitable and a man used to ordering a household around. Lyddie's struggle to maintain a place in her radically changed home soon brings her into open conflict with an increasingly short-tempered Nathan and his children from two previous marriages. Gunning infuses the story with suspense and intrigue, as Lyddie's plight brings her into the orbit of local Indian Sam Cowett; community censure then brings her an ally in sympathetic lawyer Ebeneezer Freeman. Gunning resists easy generalizations and stereotypes while the story pulls in 18th-century law and Anglo-Indian relations, but the dull period dialogue, of which there is a great deal, reads awkwardly. Yet she makes Lyddie's struggle to remake her life credible and the world she inhabits complex. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1761, Massachusetts-born attorney James Otis challenged the British government's right to impose legal writs on the American Colonies. He was also an outspoken abolitionist and supporter of women's suffrage. In her latest novel, Gunning (Fire Water) uses Otis as a catalyst for change in the life of Lyddia Berry. While most people find the lawyer's sentiments appalling, she is quietly thrilled-in fact, Otis's speeches inspire Lyddia to defy her son-in-law, a pompous businessman who assumed legal responsibility for her following the accidental death of her fisherman husband. Gunning exposes the sexism of the era-married women were denied the right to own property and were barred from signing contracts, while widows were under the thumb of male heirs and granted use of only one-third of their deceased husband's property-and juxtaposes it with the racism of the white Colonists against Native Americans. By merging historical fact with riveting fiction, she offers readers an intimate peak into the daily life of pre-Revolutionary War Satucket, MA. Along the way, they'll get a vivid sense of the race, gender, and class dynamics of America's foreparents while enjoying a wonderful story. This is historical fiction at its best; highly recommended.-Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Gunning's quietly compelling historical novel places the limited rights of 18th-century New England married women, particularly widows, within the context of a pre-Revolutionary America in which rebellious attitudes toward English rule foment new ideas about freedom and individual rights. When her husband dies in a whaling accident, 39-year-old Cape Codder Lyddie Berry is entitled only to a widow's third of her husband's estate. She is expected to move in with her daughter Mehitable and avaricious son-in-law Nathan Clarke, who, as Lyddie's closest male relative, now controls her life. Her only ally is her husband's lawyer, widower Eben Freeman. While Nathan is a stingy, narrow-minded Puritan, Eben, whose friend James Otis's suit against Britain's Writs of Assistance is a precursor to the Revolution, is more open-minded. Unable to live with Clarke, Lyddie defies social norms and moves back into her home-or one-third of it. Clarke's plan to sell the cottage is thwarted because Lyddie's neighbor Sam Cowett, a local Indian semi-accepted by the townspeople, refuses to relinquish his timber rights to the Berry property. When Sam's wife Rebecca comes down with brain fever, a financially desperate Lyddie works as her paid nurse. Despite malicious gossip concerning her relationship with recently widowed Sam, Eben proposes marriage. A happy outcome seems possible until Lyddie finds herself unwilling to put herself at a man's mercy, even reasonable Eben's. Gunning (Dirty Water, 2004, etc.) paints the ethical, emotional and financial dilemmas of her refreshingly adult characters in surprisingly lively shades of gray.
Boston Globe
“Heartrending ... Gunning’s vibrant portrayal of Lyddie’s journey shows that the pursuit of happiness is not for the faint of heart.”
“Readers will be swiftly turning the pages, eagerly cheering for the strong-willed widow.”
Historical Novels Review (The Historical Novel Society); "Editor's Choice"
“Gripping, romantic, historically sound, and completely satisfying...I’ll be surprised if I read a better historical novel this year.”
Historical Novels Review
"Gripping, romantic, historically sound, and completely satisfying...I’ll be surprised if I read a better historical novel this year."

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Widow's War

A Novel
By Sally Gunning

William Morrow

ISBN: 0-06-079157-8

Chapter One

January 2, 1761

Lyddie Berry heard the clatter of the geese and knew something was coming - Cousin Betsey, Grandson Nate, another wolf, or, knowing those fool birds, a good gust of wind - but when she heard the door snap hard against the clapboards she discounted all four of them; she whirled with the wind already in her skirts to see the Indian, Sam Cowett, just ducking beneath the lintel. He had the height and width to crowd a room, and the black eyes - what was it about a pair of eyes you couldn't see through? She took a step back and was sorry she'd done it, but he'd not have noticed; already he'd looked past her, calling into the empty doorway behind, "Blackfish in the bay!" The words had been known to clear every man out of town meeting, so Lyddie wasn't surprised to hear the instant echo of Edward's boots or see the great sweep of arm that took up his coat and cap along with his breakfast. The bread went to pocket and the beer to mouth; he set back the mug and smiled at her; never mind it was a smile full of whales, not wife - she answered it, or would have if he'd stayed to see it - he was gone before her skirts had settled.

Lyddie ate her bread and drained her beer and stepped into her day, scouring down the pewter, building up the fire for the wash, shaving the soap into the kettle. At the first trip to the well she looked up at the trees andnoted the wind, coming up brisk but constant in direction; by the fourth trip it had turned fickle, angling in first from the north, then the east, then the west, sometimes in a great gust and sometimes in a whisper. She went back inside and pounded out the shirts and shifts, tossing them into the pot to boil, all the while listening to the wind. She descended the ladder into the cellar to fetch the vegetables for the stew, and even there in the hollow dark she caught the echo; she climbed out and chopped turnips and listened, put the salt fish to soak and listened, trimmed and set the candles and listened, smoothed the bed feathers and listened. Once she'd hung the stew pot, poked the fire, and stirred up the clothes, she grabbed her cloak and cap off the peg and went out.

The winter had begun mild, and the ruts were deep and soft in the landing road; Lyddie was muddied to the tops of her boots by the time she took the rise at Robbin's hill and saw the ash-colored bay spotted all over with boats and foam. She leaned into the wind and soon had a clear view of the beach, blackened as far as her eye could see, by the whales, driven ashore by the men's oars beating against the water. It was a rich sight and one not seen in the bay for some years; Lyddie stood on the bluff wrapped tight in her cloak and gloried in the view, but she made no peace with the wind. It worried her around the ears, it heeled over the boats and slapped them back; it herded the waves far up the beach and left them to die among the whales. She looked for Edward's whaleboat, but they all looked the same, although she thought she picked out the great shape of the Indian. At length she gave up and let the wind push and pull her home.

On her return she put out her midday dinner of the stew and bread and beer. They'd finished the old loaf at breakfast, and she set out the new one with her usual satisfaction at the symmetry of its shape, the tight seal of the crust blocking out the petrifying air. She had only one moment of unease, that she should waste a fresh cut into a new loaf without Edward home to share, but the minute she'd heard the word blackfish she'd expected to take the midday meal alone, and it didn't trouble her long, wouldn't have troubled her, if it weren't for that wind. She hastened through the meal and put away the remains, wrapping the bread in the cloth with care. She washed her plate, hung the clothes in front of the fire, swept up the pieces of bark and dried leaves and pine needles that trailed everywhere on the heels of the firewood, scoured the floor with sand, watched the darkness lie down, and listened to the wind.

When was it that the sense of trouble grew to fear, the fear to certainty? When she sat down to another solitary supper of bread and beer and pickled cucumber? When she heard the second sounding of the geese? Or had she known that morning when she stepped outside and felt the wind? Might as well say she knew it when Edward took his first whaling trip to the Canada River, or when they married, or when, as a young girl, she stood on the beach and watched Edward bring about his father's boat in the Point of Rock channel. Whatever its begetting, when Edward's cousin Shubael Hopkins and his wife, Betsey, came through the door, they brought her no new grief, but an old acquaintance.

Shubael spoke. Lyddie heard that Edward's boat had gone over, that the four men with him had been fished out alive, that they had searched till dark but had found no sign of Edward; after that Lyddie heard nothing until she realized there was nothing to hear, that the three of them now stood in silence, that the candle had lost an inch of height.

She looked at Shubael. His coat was crusted with salt, his hair glued dark and wet below his cap.

"You were near when it happened?"

He dropped his eyes, shook his head. "'Twas Sam Cowett got there first. He recovered them. All but -"


Excerpted from The Widow's War by Sally Gunning Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A lifelong resident of New England, Sally Cabot Gunning has immersed herself in its history from a young age. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Satucket Novels—The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke—and, writing as Sally Cabot, the equally acclaimed Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard. She lives in Brewster, Massachusetts, with her husband, Tom.

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The Widow's War 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 239 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sally Gunning's The Widow's War places the reader in an historical time that we all think we know about, (18th Century New England - specifically, Cape Cod), since so many of us had years of American History in school and had possibly visted myriad historical sites with classmates and/or family. This novel, however, brings an intimacy with the times, which may have been lacking in history classes, that not only makes the time period live, but makes the characters interesting and worthy of our compassion. It is not a 'Woman's' book. At a recent meeting of my book club, we were fortunate to have Sally Gunning as a guest who shared much of her detailed research, historical models for her characters, and why she turned from writing mysteries to penning an historical novel. She mentioned that men who had read the book were clear that they felt it was not a feminine read. It is for anyone who enjoys an engaging story steeped in historical fact. The characters, the place (Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts), 18th Century mores, and the smells and textures of a community that depended on whaling, are drawn so vividly that details are immediately turned into pictures in the reader's mind. Lyddie, the main character, is like no other 18th century woman that I've ever read about--she is so real and vibrant. The dialogue is rich and the vocabulary full of 18th century meanings. But you won't need a glossary of terms. You'll learn, for example, what a 'necessary' was in those days. The relationship between Native Americans and colonists, the role of law in the society, and a strong hint of the burgeoning idea of freedom from England in the person of an historically accurate James Otis, all contribute to this engaging novel. It is a window into one woman's world, that in its detail gives an encompassing view of part of the 18th Century, in New England, in all of its complexities and richness.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked this book so much, I have started giving it to my friends for a birthday present. I have gotten more ''thank you''s for The Widow's War, than from any other present I've given.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoy historical fiction very much and this ranks with the best of them. Lyddie could be any woman, any era. She is strong, frank and forthright about her concerns and decisions. The issue of racial prejudice was handled with wonderful candor and honesty. The conclusion of the story made sense, without giving us a fairy tale ending. This would be a great discussion book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stunning (the story, not the setting) historical novel of a women fighting for her human rights in extremely hard times with rigid rules. Don't forget to read the Historical Notes at the end of the book. In fact, read them first.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I've read in awhile. Bravo!
Too_Busy_Reading_To_Write More than 1 year ago
I read this hoping for a good historical fiction, however, other than references to some political going-ons of the day, the point of view of the main character had little to do with the 1700s. A pet peeve of mine is when "historical fiction" is infused with 21st century thoughts and ideas which usually take the characters down a road of "sexual liberation" and 20th century feminism. The main character was not believable and I found most of the supporting characters to be flat and caricature-like. I also did not feel invested in any of the relationships, except maybe the widow's relationship to her dead husband.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great read - engaging, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable. Leaves a 'good taste'.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. The strong female character was refreshing and the way she managed her struggles was inspiring. There were even a few chuckles to be had.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I totally enjoyed this book and realize much appreciation of our present day situations regarding property and widowhood. Women have come quite a long way since the days of this character. Great weaving of the tale; I wanted to cheer this widow on!
BrenW More than 1 year ago
Interesting how little value women had in the early days of America. I usually avoid books that are focused on women's issues as the story is lost in the political stuff. But this one is very good, with focus on history and the character.
clg1982 7 months ago
I loved this book. The historical elements were very interesting. The characters and the setting were engrossing. A really enjoyable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Elwhy More than 1 year ago
Fascinating and a good read; very different and yet kept me spell-bound the entire book. I was sorry to come to the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's been a long time since I read a book I had trouble putting down. Thanks to Sally Gunning for a fascinating story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a bit slow for me to get the language and writing style, but holy cow THIS IS AN OUTSTANDING BOOK!!!! I will remember and think of how far women have come in america. I loved the story and the characters so much. This is one of those books that you just cant get out of you head. I eish i could give it 10 stars
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my all time favorite books. Love how character,.plot, and setting waswritten to perfection.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is such an eyeopener to what life for women was like in the mid-1700's. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. The story was gripping and you feel like you know her and want only good for her.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having grown up in MA this book was so interesting to me. I was captivated from the first page to the last.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read the widow was a strong woman ahead of the times