Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Rebel Wife by Taylor Polites — 304 pgs

Augusta Branson has just buried her husband, Eli, after a horrendous bloody death brought on by a mysterious illness. Though “Gus” wasn’t overly fond of Eli and felt that she had been trapped in a marriage that betrayed her political and social sympathies, Eli’s death isn’t the escape that she had so hoped it would be. Eli hasn’t even been put into the ground before her cousin, the enigmatic Judge, comes calling to inform Gus that he is the executor of her husband’s will and that Eli has squandered away the family fortune, leaving Gus nearly destitute. In addition, there are subtle undercurrents of vicious racial hate surging through the town, and though the slaves have been freed, it seems that Eli was on the wrong side of the political divide, financing and assisting the Freedmen in numerous ways and making himself some very powerful enemies. Just when Gus has lost all hope, salvation comes from an unexpected quarter, and in her late husband’s manservant, Simon, Gus finds a tenuous alliance. Simon has kept many secrets for Eli, and when he decides to put his trust in Gus, the two begin to uncover a winding trail of secrets that may lead to freedom for the repressed former slaves, and liberation for Gus as well. But despite all their care, Gus and Simon cannot keep the danger fully at bay, and as they uncover more and more clues to the elaborate deception that is going on all around them, they find themselves in a twisted pit of hate, corruption and evil. In this absorbing and provocative novel, Taylor Polites brings us the pulse-pounding story of one woman’s journey to the discovery of ultimate truth and redemption, both in her life and the lives that surround her.

One of the best experiences that I had at SIBA late last fall was getting the chance to meet Taylor Polites, whose razor sharp wit and charisma made me feel as if I had known him for ages though we had only just met. When I attended the Book Club Picks panel, I was excited to see Taylor there, speaking about his upcoming book, The Rebel Wife. I was rooted to the spot and fascinated by every word, because this was a tale told from a perspective that I had never heard before, and as I sat and listened, I grew more and more intrigued. When I opened the book and began reading, I was transported to a time and place that was new and emotionally stirring to me. As I wound my way through the pages, I became eager and anxious to untangle the threads of plot, character and emotion that were woven into this rousing tapestry.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book was the character growth of Gus. It was not only believable, but intriguing to watch. There are times when historical novels frustrate me because the starring roles are occupied by characters that don’t evince any growth at all, and I close the book in frustration, seeing no forward movement. This isn’t the case with Gus. In her emotional evolution she begins as closed as a bud and slowly unfurls into a woman who embodies and displays grace and courage. Her refusal to become hardened and bitter, and her eventual acceptance and increasing esteem for the servants who were closer to her than kin, was also extremely heartening to see. I have to admit that I didn’t really like Gus at first, but as her trials wore on her and her exterior was sloughed away, she became not only a likable character but someone whom I rooted for and became invested in. The forward momentum of her personality wove through the plot as well, and as it did so, the narrative became rich and enlivened.

It was in the plight of the former slaves and Freedmen that I found the true substance and grit of this book. Theirs was a cruel predicament, for they were not captured by the bonds of slavery, yet they still existed in a type of bondage that was more spiteful and harder to categorize. Though they had their rights, the novel sheds light on the ways in which organized resistance kept them from voting and from holding land of their own. Where once they were slaves, now they were servants, and in effect, it was only the change in terminology that separated the two. In light of these facts, Simon was a most welcome character: a man who refused to succumb to the more dominant whites that wanted to keep him ensnared. While Eli lived, he was a right hand, but after his death, he became so much more than that, both for Gus and the men of his community. His was a troubled path as well, and his redemption was hard won, but Simon was both loyal and powerful in his quiet and subdued way.

As the narrative spins, Gus becomes lost in the plots and plans of men who think that they are better, smarter and stronger than she is, and due to her gender, all the actions that she takes must be done in secrecy. It was a hard time for women of the South after the devastation of the Civil War, and it was interesting the way that black Americans and women shared the feelings of helplessness and futility in their ability to affect change and hold power. These struggles were deftly examined and exposed in the novel, and in addition to shedding light on this frustrating situation, Polites weaves a significant amount of historical background into the personal narrative. Well crafted and finely honed antagonists round out the picture into one that was not only satisfyingly complete, but full of intrigue as well.

There aren’t many historical novels that I would read twice, but in The Rebel Wife I’ve found a book that I want to go back to again and again; not only because of the things I learned but because I believe the book still has lessons to teach me and its characters are vivid and solid enough to withstand close scrutiny and become favorites. I was greatly impressed with this book and I think those that love historical fiction or stories that reflect the human condition would have a lot to chew over and contemplate here. A fantastic read. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

25 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I reviewed this book today too, but your review is so much better than mine! I can't wait to see what Taylor comes up with next!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

You SIBA attendees got exposed to so many good books!

Wall-to-wall books said...

Sounds great!
Your review was great too!
I love how much you put into it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Taylor was one of the SIBA highlights! I loved this book as well (review coming Thursday). The atmospheric and historical detail were rich, and I loved Gus' growth into a strong independant woman. Great review!

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I really want to read this one. I've heard so many great things about it. Twitter exploded today with launch day. Great review!

TheBookGirl said...

This sounds wonderful. You are so right about character development often suffering in historical novels. I have to add this one to my list. It must be such fun to meet an author, be entranced by him or her, and then go on to love their book :)

Harvee said...

Sounds like a fantistic historical novel! It's on my wesh list! Your review convinced me!

Andi said...

Great review, Heather! I actually just commented on another blog that the premise of this book intrigues me, but it suffers from a sucky cover. Further proof that bad covers CAN happen to good books. *sob*

Audra said...

Omg, you have me salivating for this book -- I must get -- especially since it's reread worthy for you!

Ti said...

The fact that you want to go back and read it again, says it all. Nice job with the review! Your reviews always make me want to read the book!

Jenny said...

Wow, just the fact that you would like to reread this is telling! I read both yours an Kathy's reviews today and am interested in this book!

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I have this review to write & broke my own rule of reading yours prior to writing mine - now I just want to write a post & say "see heather's review!"
I agree I did not like Gus in the beginning - the mindset she had toward the house servants in the beginning of the book disturbed me greatly. But oh wow, what I learned about the southern reconstruction! Amazing review Heather!

Nise' said...

This book caught my attention a couple of days ago and I am glad to read that your highly recommend it.

Amy said...

Sounds like a really interesting read, thanks for the great review and for bringing it to my attention.

Jenners said...

This sounds like a good "companion" read to A Peopel's HIstory of the U.S. in a way. I'm glad the book lived up to the author's dazzling personality!

Marg said...

I hadn't heard too much about this book! It sounds like one I might have to make an effort to find

Lisa said...

What a lot there was to love about this book. I always find I enjoy a book more when I have heard the author talk about it. My book club talks to authors sometimes and even when I haven't particularly liked the book, I find so much more like about it after I get their thoughts.

Darlene said...

I've seen a few reviews of this one and it sounds fantastic. Certainly a novel that I bet I would like. Great review Heather.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Awesome review. A book you'd read twice is always a good recommendation and I really enjoy Civil War era books. Definitely adding this one to my list.
2 Kids and Tired Books

mike draper said...

Nice to see a book that anyone likes well enough to read twice.
I enjoyed your review.
Mike

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

Your introduction to your reviews always leave me wanting to read the book. I haven't read that many historical novels but your treatment of this makes me want to grab it and would have had it been easily available to me. Perhaps I've got to find means of buying on amazon. Thanks for this review.

nomadreader said...

That's quite an endorsement! I enjoy historical fiction, but I'm often not a big fan of Southern fiction. This one sounds quite intriguing to me, however. Excellent review!

Aarti said...

Wow, excellent review! This sounds right up my alley. Especially as you said you think you could read it again :-)

Jules said...

This sounds like an interesting book, thanks for the excellent review. It looks like the author took is time with the characters and ensured they were well rounded and developed. The writing style also appeals to me.

Amy said...

You and Sandy have similar opinions of Taylor Polites and he sounds like a fascinating,witty and smart man!

I don't think this is a book I would have picked off the store shelf to read. But after this fantastic and intriguing review of yours and Sandy's review, I am completely taken with this book and plan to read it.


Gus sounds captivating and her story mesmerizing and interesting. I love that we get more than that with the story about the situation with the slaves and Freedman which is heart-breaking and astounding. I want to know more about it, too! Imagine thinking you're no longer a slave only to discover that to many people what you are legally doesn;'t matter, you're not considered anything close to equal. That's just horrible and devestating for the former slaves. Although Gus isn't a slave, she's treated similar;ly in that she's not considered an equal by men.

Thank you, Heather! This one's going on my wishlist!

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