Brimming with atmosphere and edgy suspense, The Rebel Wife presents a young widow trying to survive in the violent world of Reconstruction Alabama, where the old gentility masks continuing violence fueled by hatred, treachery, and still powerful secrets.
Augusta Branson was born into antebellum Southern nobility during a time of wealth and prosperity, but now she is left standing in the ashes of a broken civilization. When her scalawag husband dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, she must fend for herself and her young son. Slowly she begins to wake to the reality of her new life: 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 fever that killed her husband is spreading fast.
Augusta needs someone to trust if she and her son are to escape. As she summons the courage to cross the boundaries of hate, The Rebel Wife presents an unforgettable heroine for our time.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.64(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.83(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I KNOW THAT ELI is dying.
Rachel said the rattlesnakes were a bad sign, but that doesn’t signify. The Negroes give so much credence to conjuring and signs. But there is something about Eli. He looks so much like Pa before he died. Eli trembles in his bed like Pa did. He has the same fever in his eyes. Losing Pa was terrible, but I don’t feel that with Eli. He is not a bad husband, but it will not be like when Pa died.
When Eli came home on horseback, the heat had covered him in sweat. The humidity hung in the air like wet sheets shimmering in the sunlight. Simon had uncovered a nest of snakes beside the carriage house by the apple trees. Rachel and Emma were wild with fear. They closed themselves up in the kitchen. It became so hot the bricks seemed to sweat. John helped Simon kill the snakes with hoes while Rachel called to John from the kitchen window loud enough for the whole town to hear, shouting at him to keep away, to think of their boy, repeating over and over that it was a bad omen. Simon ignored them as if he had no fear at all. His black skin was dotted with tiny beads of sweat from the heat or maybe that was fear. He hacked at them while they shook their rattlers and coiled around each other in a solid writhing mass. Simon warned me to stay back, but I wanted to see them. And then Eli came riding up the lane almost hanging off his saddle.
He drank water straight from the pump, lifting the lever and heaving it down as he bent over it, the other hand extended, waiting for the rattle of the pipe until the water splashed over his palm. The sunlight glittered in it as he threw it on his face. He drank it in gulps. Simon left the dead snakes and spoke with him. He helped Eli into the house and left the horse for John.
Eli is twenty-five years older than I, but he gives the impression that he could live forever. He has a sureness of youth about him in spite of how ungainly he is. He is imposing but not handsome. Never handsome. His waxy scalp shines through his thinning hair. His nose is bulbous. His jaw sags with awful, long whiskers. He wears odd Quaker hats to keep the sun off or his skin will splotch red.
He barely said a word through supper last night and picked at the cold mutton and pickles Emma laid out. He complained of the odor of her canned tomato relish and the early greens. His wheezing drove me to distraction. He stared at his plate, red-faced, breathing hard as if it took all his concentration. I had to scold Henry for shoving his sopping biscuit into his mouth.
He was dazed when he took to his bed—our bed. He perspired to excess but would take no water. Dr. Greer’s visit was hardly reassuring. He came late and said it was some fever that would pass. He recommended cold compresses and tartar emetic to increase the sweating, even though the bedding was already soaked. And a bleeding tomorrow, he said.
Simon gave him the emetic mixed with molasses. Emma and Rachel kept wet cloths on his forehead. Then I had my turn, sitting with the lamp low, watching the rise and fall of his chest and the dull rattle from each exhale. Just once he awoke, but he didn’t speak. He searched the room with his eyes, searching for something, and then he saw me. His hand reached out and I took it in mine, curling my fingers around his without touching his palm, resisting him. I hushed him and pressed the damp cloth against his forehead. I wiped down his chest through the gap in his nightshirt. He closed his eyes and drifted in and out of sleep, disturbed by the spasms brought on by the emetic. I knew then that he would not survive. I know for certain that he is dying.
When Pa died, it was about winter. The trees were already half bare, the lawns brittle and brown. But everything here is so alive. The garden soaks in the sun, thriving in this relentless humidity without the faintest hint of death. The grass is dense and green. The trees are heavy with leaves, drooping with exhaustion. Fat peonies have bloomed, their petals collapsing into so many delicate pieces of torn pink silk on the grass. Tendrils of honeysuckle twine around the thin posts of the back porch, their honey-sweet perfume hanging in the air with no breeze to move it away.
Henry plays on the gravel path. His towhead in the sun is like new hay, a trait he bears from Eli. He is all Eli, with none of the Sedlaw brooding features and dark hair. He squats with a stick in his small hand, poking at an anthill. He has no sense of waiting. He only asked this morning why Papa was still in bed, then shrugged away his concern when Emma came in.
“Come quick, Miss Gus!”
Emma leans from the bedroom window waving a towel. We both look. White turban. Black face. Black dress. White cuffs. And a filthy towel whipping wildly in front of her. No words anymore, just panic on her face. I know what she has to tell me. Thank God she came with me into this house when I married. Mama threw a conniption, but Emma is free to choose as she pleases. Lord knows she was more of a mother to me sometimes than Mama. She chose to come for whatever reason. I didn’t force her.
“Wait here for Mama,” I call back to Henry. My shoes crunch over the pea-gravel path and click against the steps of the porch.
The shadows of the house are cool. A door closes upstairs, but the latch does not click. I mount the step and my heel catches in my skirts. The hem tears. I pull at my dress and grab the banister.
The odor of sweat and rot slithers around me. It swallows me as I climb. I want to retch. What is all this red? Is it blood? I should go into Eli’s room, but this red—red everywhere, smeared on everything. Bowls of pewter and clay are scattered across the hall bench. Blue willow china and cooking pots canter pell-mell over the wood and overflow with wet rags tinted scarlet, dripping red onto the polished hickory, swirling in shimmering iridescent shades of crimson like oil in a puddle. Red smudges the lips of the bowls and pools in their wells. The white door is marked, smeared with red in clumsy fingerprints that are slashes against the gleaming paint. I cannot touch the brass handle of the door. The substance covers it.
I hear Emma’s voice. “You’ve got to keep working at him, Rachel.”
I push at the wood with my fingertips. It swings open slowly. Eli lies panting in his bed, prostrated. He is stripped of his clothing, appallingly naked against the white sheets. Emma, Rachel, and Simon all work at his body. The redness drips from his temples like sweat. It seeps from his armpits and the wrinkled folds of his neck. His skin is tinged watery pink. The bed linens are soaked with jagged marks of red saturation around his body like a grisly halo. He wheezes pathetically as the servants soak up the fluid with their rags and wring it into bowls. More red seeps through his skin, dripping down his arms and legs as Simon lifts each one, pushing a red-soaked rag across his limbs. The fluid falls from his face, collecting in pools around his eyes and spilling onto the sheets as he trembles. Bowls filled with bloody cloths sit on the bedside tables. The servants cannot wipe it off quickly enough. Their work is frantic.
“I won’t,” Rachel says. She holds her hands away from herself as if they are not hers.
“Rachel, hush,” Emma says, cutting her eyes between us.
“I won’t, Emma,” she says. “The devil’s done bit him on his heel to bleed like that. I won’t!”
Rachel rushes around the bed and past me, wiping her hands on her apron. They leave pale pink streaks across the white cloth. Emma and Simon turn to me. “Miss Gus, Mr. Eli needs the doctor,” Emma says.
But I am paralyzed. I will my feet to step forward, but they refuse. I can only watch him. I cannot pull myself away. What is happening to him?
His eyes have an unseeing wildness as they search the satin starburst of the bed canopy. They roam in wider circles until finally he stares into my face. He lifts his arm just barely, too weak to move. He groans with a terrifying rattle in his chest. A gurgling sound.
Simon looks at me. “He wants you, ma’am. He wants your hand.”
Eli’s pupils are dilated to large black spots in pools of red, staring at me as if he wants to say my name. He reaches for me. I lean on the door frame. I think I am going to faint. My heart is thudding in my throat so hard I can’t breathe.
“I’ll tell John to fetch the doctor,” I say. I fall out of the door and hold the banister with both hands, looking down the well of the stairs. My head spins along their curve. All of my insides feel as if they will come out.
Simon is beside me. He has left Emma alone with Eli. He puts a hand on my arm. “Miss Gus,” he says. His eyes are hard. “Did you see if Mr. Eli had anything with him when he came home?”
“Simon, take your hand off me.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” He pulls his hand back. “Mr. Eli should have had a package with him yesterday. I think it might have contained some money.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Eli needs a doctor right away, and you come asking me for money?” It’s a wonder that Eli trusted Simon.
“I think it’s important. Mr. Eli would want to know that it was safe.” He steps back and his face loses its expression.
“I’m getting the doctor for Eli. I think that’s what is important. If you want to help Eli, then you should be with him. Emma’s in there all alone.”
We both look through the open door. Emma is on the far side of the bed, looking over Eli while he wheezes. Simon’s face becomes stern. These servants. Thank God for Emma.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. He nods and goes back to Eli’s side.
Rachel had better not have already frightened John with her stories. He’ll have to fetch the doctor either way.
The wall clock is ticking by the small hours. Emma and Simon are surely asleep in their beds, although a light from Simon’s room over the carriage house glows against the thin curtains. He keeps his lamp lit, a faint flickering glow half hidden by the catalpa tree. Perhaps he is awake and waiting. Perhaps Emma is in her attic room waiting for a word from me. After this horrible afternoon, we are all waiting. His sickness—whatever it is—overwhelmed him so quickly.
Eli’s breathing works in a faltering heave and sigh. The lamplight has faded. The oil must be almost gone. At least the bleeding has stopped. Thank God it has stopped. But the scarlet-stained sheets are still under the blankets Greer had us put on Eli to keep off the chill.
How stunned Greer was when he came again, watching the sweat and blood pour off of Eli. His features seemed to fall in on themselves.
“I am sorry, Gus,” he said. “I have seen terrible things. I have done them, Lord knows. We had to do them. We did what we could to save those boys. Poor innocent boys.”
What could I do but nod? Greer is such easy prey to his memories of the war, unable sometimes to speak of anything else. Unable to help himself. We looked down on Eli’s suffering face, both of us struck dumb.
“I am sorry, Gus,” he said again. “But I do not know this illness, and I do not know how to help him.” Then he fell quiet, with only the jagged rhythm of Eli’s breathing between us. When Greer looked at me, I didn’t turn away. I looked at him more closely than I have in years. His sagging, weary eyes. The heavy cheeks covered with grizzled, rust-colored beard. The scar that cuts from eye to jaw, the slash of a shell wound from Chickamauga, grapeshot that had been blasted into the field where he was working on the dying soldiers. He tells the story so often. The scar is a smooth pink ribbon. It seemed to pulse red, as if inflamed by his memory. He turned away from me.
“We can try to ease his pain,” he said. There was shame in his voice. “Put blankets on him and close these windows near twilight. And this. It’s a tincture of opium. You know how to apply it.”
He held out the small bottle of curiously shaped dark blue glass, but I would not take it. I know how to apply it. I have handled it before. It is a familiar remedy to me. He knew that.
He placed the bottle on the marble-topped table by Eli’s bedside and departed. The skin on my arms tingles when I look at it. I cannot help but look at it. The opalescent liquid flared in the glass like a nymph swirling in milky veils. Simon poured it into Eli’s mouth, drops dribbling down his chin onto the sheets. I could have kissed him there, just for a taste of it. But Rachel was apoplectic about the blood. She insists we keep from touching it. Simon was relieved when Eli’s breathing eased into a shallow wheeze. He slept and seemed less troubled. I was relieved, too.
Emma sat on a chair in the corner, sighing a hymn. The refrain had something soothing to it. What were the words? I think I heard it in the African church west of the square when I was a girl. Mama had taken me there to hear their preacher, who had a reputation. The entire congregation sang, wailing and ecstatic. Their voices were like waves of grief and joy combined.
There is a balm in Gilead
That makes the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Eli coughs and rustles in his bedclothes. Was I sleeping? I want to sleep. I want to cross the hall and lock the door behind me and crawl in between the clean dry sheets and sleep.
Eli’s eyes are open. The whites are red-riddled. He stares at me and shakes his head. “No,” he says again and again. Is it no? I cannot understand him. His arms wrestle with the blankets. He wants to reach out to me again. He wants some last embrace. I can feel each vertebra of my back against the chair. My hands grip the carved wood arms. His mouth opens and closes. A shudder takes hold of me and my breath will not come. He gasps and the air makes a wet sucking sound as it enters his lungs. He groans. I want to scream but cannot. I want to run from him. The blankets lift with an incredible effort. He is scratching at them, his hands prisoner under their weight. He lets out another shuddering groan. His arms collapse against the bed. He exhales with a click.
And all is quiet. The blankets lie still against the bed. A soft wisp of breath slips from his mouth. His eyes fade. The frenzy and desire in them vanish. They are opaque and bleary. He is dead. My God, he is dead.
I cannot cry. I do not want to cry, though I should weep for him. And for myself. And for these past ten years we spent together. For this thing that was our marriage. Whatever it was. And now my husband has died and left me a widow.
The first pale hints of sunrise creep into the sky to color it a hard gray like gunmetal. Simon’s lamp still burns in his bedroom window. He has waited up all night. But I want to linger with Eli. I do not want to move. I do not want to leave this room. Why do I wait? The word widow vibrates in my head. It rolls on my tongue. Widow. My mouth shapes the word silently. I have counted so many days until I could call myself by that name. Widow.
© 2012 Taylor M. Polites
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Rebel Wife includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Taylor M. Polites. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Augusta “Gus” Branson, born of a prominent Southern family made destitute by the Civil War, is forced by her family 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. During the horror of Eli's swift demise, his most trusted servant, freed slave Simon, urgently questions Gus about a missing package that contains bribe money meant to sway politicians in an upcoming election. Gus plans to flee her Alabama town’s suffocating poverty and social constrictions, but once she realizes her husband’s fortune vanished in the Panic of 1873, she sets out to find the package.
Augusta begins to wake to the realities that surround her as a widowed woman in the antebellum South during Reconstruction: 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, and the deadly blood fever is ravaging her town. If Gus and Simon can find the missing package full of money before anyone else does, she and her son will be able to escape almost certain death, and Simon will be able to escape the racial injustice of the South. Yet Gus will soon learn that nothing is as she believed and everyone she trusts is hiding something from her.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Rebel Wife opens, “I know that Eli is dying.” What is the mood of this first chapter, which shows the gruesome death of Eli Branson, and how does it affect the tone of the entire novel?
2. Describe how Gus’s attitudes toward race and equality evolve over the course of the novel. How does she treat Simon, Rachel, and Emma at first? What lessons does she learn about the realities of the black experience of Reconstruction throughout the novel? How does her behavior toward her servants change as a result?
3. Although Eli dies in the first chapter of The Rebel Wife, we learn a lot about him through Gus’s discoveries. How does Gus feel about Eli at the beginning of the novel? How does her opinion of her late husband change as she learns more about his past, such as his former career as a slave catcher and his work for the Union League and Freedmen’s Bureau?
4. Early in the novel, Gus describes her son Henry: “He will grow up to be smart as a whip. He may favor Eli Branson on the outside, but inside he is a Sedlaw. I know it as surely as I know my own name.” Discuss Gus’s relationship with Henry. In what ways does he take after her? Why does Gus feel wary of Henry’s attachment to Emma?
5. Even though the Civil War is long over, “Judge said there is still a war going on.” What was his standing in Albion before the war? Consider how his power and influence have changed since the Civil War. How did the war change his fortunes? How does he try to keep fighting the war, and why does he fail?
6. Consider the relationship between Gus and Simon. How does Gus feel about her husband’s trusted servant at the beginning of the novel? How does Simon slowly earn Gus’s trust? Which scene serves as a turning point in their relationship?
7. Discuss what we learn about the Civil War through Gus’s memories. What happened to the young men of Albion who joined the Confederate war efforts, specifically Hill, Mike, and Buck? How do Mike and Buck, in particular, demonstrate the lasting consequences of the war?
8. Consider Gus’s struggle with laudanum throughout the novel. How did she first try the drug, and why does it still have a hold on her? How does laudanum hold her back in her efforts to find Eli’s package, and how does she use the laudanum against Judge in the end?
9. Rachel tells Gus, “There isn’t any future for colored folks down here.” Discuss the fate of the freed slaves in Alabama during the postwar years. Why do Rachel, Big John, and Simon resolve to leave for Kansas? What fate do you think awaits Simon there?
10. Consider Gus’s position with Bama Buchanan and the other society women of Albion, “all such painful gossips,” who visit her after Eli’s death. How do Bama and her friends treat Gus at the funeral? When does their behavior change, and why?
11. When Gus discovers that Eli purchased her mother’s war bonds, she realizes, “Eli collected things of value and he wanted me.” How does Gus feel when she realizes that Mama and Judge “sold” her to Eli in marriage? How does this transaction help Gus understand the horrors of slavery?
12. Consider the possible origins of the blood fever that sweeps through Albion. What seems to have caused this outbreak of sickness? Do you believe Rachel’s superstitions regarding the fever? Why or why not?
13. Discuss the role of women in the South during Reconstruction. What challenges does Gus face as a Southern woman? From proper manners to medical practices, how does Gus challenge the customs of her society?
14. At the end of The Rebel Wife, Gus states, “And Simon will come back. I know he will.” Why is Gus so confident of Simon’s return? Do you agree with her that Simon will return after establishing a new settlement in Kansas? Why or why not?
15. The Rebel Wife is full of interesting details about life in the South during Reconstruction. Discuss what you learned from reading the novel, from race relations to mourning practices.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. How did women like Gus dress during the Civil War and Reconstruction? View some images and descriptions below. If you’re feeling inspired, try out some sewing patterns to make your own period costume! http://www.shasta.com/suesgoodco/newcivilians/womenswear/fashion.htm.
2. Gus’s ancestors were distinguished and powerful Southerners. Trace your own family history using the sites and tools listed on the PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/facesofamerica/resources/trace-your-family-history/32/.
3. Learn about the history of laudanum and other historical and fictional characters who, like Gus, were addicted to the drug: http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/Laudanum.
4. Huntsville, Alabama was Taylor M. Polites’s inspiration for the fictional town of Albion. Find out what’s going on in Huntsville today and imagine what you would do there if you made a trip: http://www.huntsville.org/visitors/play/.
5. Treat your book club to a movie night and screen the Reconstruction classic Gone with the Wind. Serve your guests ice-cold sweet tea, and enjoy the show!
A Conversation with Taylor M. Polites
Tell us how you decided to write a novel set in Alabama during Reconstruction. What first inspired you to set your novel in this troubled time and place?
Growing up in Alabama, I was fascinated by the remnants of what people romantically referred to as the “Old South.” Gone With the Wind was a book I first read when I was thirteen and it captivated me. From there, I began reading and seeing as much as I could of this “Old South,” from memoirs and histories to preserved plantation homes and Civil War battlefields. But as I read more, I discovered that while the actual events before and during the Civil War were re-fought and re-lived in thousands of different ways, Southerners had very little to say about Reconstruction, except that it was “bad.” In my research, however, Reconstruction was the critical coda to the story of the Civil War. You could not understand the war without thinking about Reconstruction, what was tried, how people lived and where things stood at its close in the mid-1870’s. An incredible amount of change occurred between 1861 and 1876. The great tragedy of this period of American history is how the change that people envisioned was abandoned, left to later generations to finish. I wanted to write a book that did not talk simply about the upheavals of the war, but addressed where people were when it started and where they were after Reconstruction was given up. I wanted there to be that sense of loss, but also hope for the future. And I wanted, like so many who have written about the South, to tell the story as I have learned it.
You reveal that Huntsville, Alabama was the basis for your fictional setting of Albion. What is Huntsville like today, as compared to the “Albion” of the past? How did you go about imagining an entire historical community?
When I was a teen in Huntsville, after the seeming moment of epiphany when I read Gone With the Wind, I became obsessed with all things “Old South.” Somehow, I was amazed to discover that the landscape and history and architecture and people could all be combined into a STORY. I imagined Southern market towns and county seats. I drew maps of them, and then I drew the houses and landscaped the gardens. I drew architectural plans of the houses and then named the people in them and gave them stories. All of these river and railroad towns were imagined with Huntsville as the starting point. The research I continued to do, branching out into more sophisticated sources, continuously fed into the imagining of what ultimately became Albion. I have spent many years on the streets of Albion and once the story was set, it was very easy to get in the carriage and ride through the square or past the cemetery or out to the mill at Three Forks. That is probably thanks in part to Huntsville, too. The antebellum historic district is beautifully preserved today. Wandering today’s Huntsville, you can find pieces of that world from 150 years ago still intact.
In your author’s note, you point out the “strange paradox of Reconstruction in the South.” Why do you think the “Old South” was romanticized in popular culture for so many years? What do you think the consequences of the romantic “Old South” perception have been? What do you think is the most important lesson that readers can learn about the realities of Reconstruction?
In both North and South, the death and sacrifice of the Civil War, the most passionate and bloody event most Americans have ever seen (then or now), were seared into our national memory. For white Southerners, understanding the defeat and devastation became a major focus of those who wrote about the war. Some historians have suggested that there was no truly unified “South” until after Appomattox. The “romanticization” of the “Old South” and the war was an act of memory and a political statement. After Reconstruction, that statement was clearly, “Things were better before the war.” In a country that would take another century before guaranteeing full civil rights to all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, Southerners are not solely responsible for the creation of these myths or their lasting power. If the sentimental books about life in the South were written by Southerners, they were read by Northerners. Politically, economically, and culturally, the wounds of the Civil War were healed when white Americans agreed on a system of segregation based on race. The perpetuation of these myths in literature and even scholarly historical works were to enable the indifference of a country too comfortable with the stark inequalities of race and class. Are those inequalities completely gone? Have they shifted to different groups? Reconstruction was a monumental experiment in social change. There were violent reactions against it. But at least some of those promises have finally been fulfilled over the last fifty years.
Who was the inspiration for Eli Branson, a brave champion for equal rights with a secret past as a slave catcher?
Eli began as an archetype, the Scalawag, a native Southerner who became a Republican after the war and worked with the military and then Republican governments during Reconstruction. There were many prominent antebellum statesmen (like David C. Humphries in North Alabama) who saw cooperation and reconciliation as their duty after the war. Many of these men were defamed in the press and accused of all sorts of corruption and political venality after Reconstruction. That is how the reader initially understands Eli—through the stereotypes and gossip put forward by Judge as well as Augusta and her mother. But then the reader begins to see Eli through the eyes of Emma, Simon, and other African-Americans in Albion. Eventually, the reader learns of Eli’s past as a slave dealer, adding another contradictory layer to his character. A real-life Southerner who was a slave dealer was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famed cavalry officer who some still see as a Confederate hero. His primary business before the war was trading slaves. He was someone who did not see the humanity of the people he held in bondage. He is reputed to have committed some of the worst atrocities against African-Americans during the Civil War and he participated in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. He never did see the basic humanity of people beyond race, but what if an opportunist like Eli did? Who would he become? Someone who remained an opportunist, perhaps, and who would not shrink from finding the means for personal gain. But someone, too, who saw the humanity of his right-hand man, Simon, and after a horrible and traumatic loss of life, might feel that he also could be something more than an exploiter.
What was it like to write The Rebel Wife from a female point of view? Was there a particular reason you chose this perspective? What were the challenges imagining the perspective of a young widow?
The Southern woman is an archetype, too, like Eli the Scalawag or Judge the Unreconstructed Confederate. This archetype has existed since before the end of the Civil War (see Augusta Jane Evan’s Macaria). Since then there has been no lack of fictional Southern heroines; but, my main inspiration came from the many women of the South who told the stories of their lives during and after the war in their own words. These voices served as a source for Augusta. She was never a question or a plot point to be worked out. She was there from the start, the core of the story. Throughout the writing of the book, I would return to Mary Chesnut’s diary edited by C. Vann Woodward, randomly open up the book, and begin reading her words, listening for her voice, a turn of phrase or an anecdote that might reveal something deeper about her experience. In the same way, I would go to a collection of letters called Cease Not to Think of Me. The letters are between members of the Steele and Fearn families, two prominent Huntsville families related by marriage. Kate Fearn Steele, in particular, had a voice and a way of writing her letters, frank and beautiful, that helped me access Augusta’s voice. I would turn to her letters in the same way I would turn to Mary Chesnut.
The heat of the South practically rises off the pages of The Rebel Wife! How did you manage to re-create an oppressive climate in every chapter?
During a period of extreme heat in New England last summer, I was telling a friend that when I was growing up in the South, everything was air-conditioned. It could be 99 degrees outside, but you would go from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned job or store. It was not until I moved to the Northeast, where air conditioning is far from ubiquitous, that I really felt summer heat and learned how to deal with it. Those experiences of managing heat played a big role in thinking how a person in 1875 would have responded to a heat wave. For one thing, you had no alternative to the heat, you just had to get through it. Larger houses with thicker walls and higher ceilings might be somewhat cooler, but the heat would always be there, like a throb that you can’t quite forget. At one point in the book, Augusta feels that heat radiating out of the bricks late at night. That moment in particular was from a west-facing apartment I had in New York City during a brutally hot summer with no a/c. The bricks truly did put out heat.
Much of The Rebel Wife takes place in flashback, as Gus recalls Albion’s prewar years and the horrors of the Civil War. How did you keep track of the complicated timeline of your plot? Why did you choose to use flashbacks, as opposed to telling the story linearly?
I wanted this story to occur over a compact timeline, only a few weeks. This helped to keep the story moving. Also, Augusta tells the story as it happens, so there is an additional layer of immediacy. As Augusta observes the world around her, as she moves through it, specific objects or moments trigger her memory, and she returns to the past, remembering through her fear or anger or greed or regret what things were like “before.” Having her present-tense narrative enhanced by memories directly related to the current events enabled a lot of the moodiness and equivocation that she feels, but there was a lot of complexity with finding the events that told the story, that kept it moving forward. I kept a spreadsheet with all the pieces of the action listed in detail, chapter by chapter, and I included a column with the dates when the events happened. That way, I could sort the spreadsheet by date or by chapter and verify that both the actual historical timing of the story and the internal timing of the novel worked in sync. Editing and re-reading, however, were the critical factors in making the novel move smoothly and quickly toward its climax.
In your acknowledgments, you thank Norris Church Mailer for reading an early draft of the book, including “two different endings.” Can you tell us a little about the alternate ending that you decided not to use?
Norris Church Mailer was so generous with her time and care in reading my book. Her view of the story and in particular those two endings were brutally honest—and that was the best thing for me. Her view, fortunately, clicked with a few other very trusted readers whom I mention in my acknowledgments. So, as far as those endings go, they probably deserve to remain in the dustbin where they have been consigned. But I will say they were much darker (can you imagine?). What my great advisors on this project counseled (including Norris Mailer) was to provide for an element of hope and strength at the end. Augusta has achieved a sense of certainty and confidence in herself, as have Simon and Emma. They know that the battle goes on, but they can hold on for the change in the future.
While writing this book, you were a resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts, far away from the American South. Is there anywhere in Provincetown you visited for inspiration while writing Gus’s story?
My main inspiration came from books and period documents, like Godey’s Lady’s Books or Peterson’s Illustrated, or reading the Huntsville newspapers from the period or the letters and diaries kept by people from that time. However, there was a place in Provincetown that was like a wonderful refuge where I got so much work done: the beautiful 1860 Center Methodist Church that overlooks the harbor and now serves as the Provincetown Public Library. What a beautiful building! And what great work spaces on a mezzanine with a window overlooking the harbor and lighthouses and Cape Cod Bay beyond. Watching the horizon line could almost put you in a trance and suddenly it was 1875!
What can your readers look forward to next? Will you continue to write historical fiction, or do you have other plans?
I love history. I always have. I am interested in so many different periods and people, from ancient Greece and Rome to Renaissance France and England. Of course, for years I have studied American history with an emphasis on the South. Albion is a place that I will definitely visit again. But I also have the urge to visit many other places and look forward to seeing what stories and characters evolve from them. One thing I know for certain is that history will be part of the stories I write, whether in a historical setting or as a reference point for understanding the modern world. I promise to keep you posted as the stories develop!