Title: The Rebel Wife
Author: Taylor M. Polites
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Augusta Branson is a young widow living in post-Civil War Alabama. Her husband, Eli, has just died, adding to the many things that have changed about her world over the last few years. Completely alone, Augusta must protect herself and her household staff against the whispers of the community – after all, Augusta’s husband was an activist on behalf of the slaves, an unpopular view in the South. When Augusta learns of a bundle of money her husband hid before he died, Augusta must work with a former slave to find it before those who wish her harm do.
The Rebel Wife is a rich portrait of the post-Civil War South. Polites’ descriptions are vivid and his details are mesmerizing. He clearly researched this novel thoroughly, ensuring that he could bring this setting alive for the reader. He immerses the reader completely in this hot, sticky world full of politics and prejudice; the tension is palpable. It’s a searing, honest portrayal of Southern society before and after the war.
Augusta is a fascinating character in The Rebel Wife. At the beginning of the novel, she is a stereotypical Southern belle, a demure woman who follows orders and doesn’t associate with the rabble. But as the novel progresses, she really breaks free of that shell. She makes deals with the former slaves in her house, actively works against a well-respected man who claims to be looking out for her, looks into her husband’s finances and investments, and more than anything, tries to understand what is going on in the world around her. I loved getting to know Augusta and watch her come into her own. And indeed, this is true of many characters in the novel; though they start as stereotypes, they overcome these labels over the course of the book.
The main character is also fascinating because of her history. Augusta’s family were slave-owning nobility in antebellum Alabama society. But, for some reason, Augusta was forced into a marriage to Eli, an activist against slavery. Even Augusta isn’t fully aware of all the details surrounding her marriage, but one thing is clear from the beginning of the novel: she resents it. But as the book progresses, and Augusta learns more about Eli posthumously, she realizes that things were much more complicated than they seemed. Polites weaves Augusta’s complicated history well, and it serves as both a source of character development and a strong plot device to keep the reader hooked.
The Rebel Wife is an interesting look at the post-War South, at a time where racial tensions were high. Polites combines the history with intriguing characters and turns this novel into a suspenseful read. Though there are some slow spots towards the middle of the book, it’s still a novel well worth reading, and would work perfectly as a book club pick.