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.