The aftermath of the Civil War—specifically, the Reconstruction era in Alabama—comes to vivid life in Taylor M. Polites’ debut novel, which dispels some of the myths associated with that period of our history.
The Rebel Wife opens in 1876 with the gruesome death of Eli Branson, the local mill owner, from what his doctor calls blood fever. Eli had been shunned in the small town of Albion for being a Yankee sympathizer—and indeed, the town’s Negroes turn out for his funeral in far greater numbers than the whites. Eli’s young widow Augusta, or Gus, wasn’t privy to his political activities, or even his finances, though she assumed she and Henry, their son, had been well provided for at his death.
Gus quickly learns how mistaken she has been—not only underestimating the negative feelings of the town’s whites toward Eli, and now her, but also their wealth, which, according to her cousin Judge, the executor of Eli’s will, has dwindled to practically nothing.
Polites has peopled his well-researched account with an intriguing cast of characters, each of whom contributes to Gus’ awakening to the postwar realities she now must face alone. There is Judge, whose greed surpasses their blood ties; Mike, Gus’ conniving brother who expects a share of the mill profits; Rachel, who has cared for Gus since childhood; and Simon, a loyal freed slave who knows the details of Eli’s finances, including a secret stash sought also by Judge and Mike.
Gus is perceptively portrayed as she gradually moves from feeling “irrelevant and disregarded” to taking charge of her altered life, and grows in her awareness of what the slaves have been through. She is ashamed of having accepted their treatment “as the way things are”—a far cry from the usual image of the Southern belle in fiction and film. Polites’ debut is a historically accurate and compelling depiction of the postwar South, in all its divisiveness and discord.