The Second Mrs. Hockaday tells a story of love, suffering and survival during the Civil War. It begins with a letter from one woman to her beloved aunt, seeking help while she is on trial for infanticide.
This is not the normal narrative. We can’t call it an epistolary novel as there are other documents as well, but much of it is told through letters. There are letters she wrote to her aunt and her aunt’s replies, letters from her husband and letters from her children as well as testimony from an inquest into the death of that child and her diary entries.
The central mystery is what Placidia did while her husband was off to war and held captive as a prisoner of war. What we know is that somehow she became pregnant and somehow that baby died. The rest is a mystery that is told slowly and painfully as people overcome the societal reticence against speaking about such things.
The novel succeeds in creating the sense of isolation and despair that Placidia must have felt, caring for her stepson, trying to keep a farm going with just a few slaves while her husband is off fighting for the Confederacy. There’s a reality and honesty in her portrayal, kind, friendly and solicitous of her slaves but ready to snap when they presume more than she allows. She represents well the way many slaveowners who regarded themselves as being kind were kind only up to a point.
I find her resistance to being honest with her husband less understandable, but then if she told him the truth when he came home, there never would have been any book, so there is that. Otherwise, I question how much their mutual trust and mutual love when that sort of secret could not be shared—after the need to protect any third party was moot.
I liked Placidia and most of the main characters in the book. She was plucky and tough. I thought her husband Gryffyth was less sympathetic, but I find nothing romantic about the Old South, the antebellum aristocracy or the Confederacy. People like to defend that society by saying they were of their time, but they were not. They were defending an institution that the world was leaving behind. They were against their time, not of it. They were aware that the world disagreed with them and continued to practice, defend, and expand slavery.
I enjoyed The Second Mrs. Hockaday. It’s well-written with a fairly fast pace and there is a small mystery that frames the narrative. While the mystery seems to be the central point of the novel, it seems to me, the real story is about what the nature of love and marriage must be to survive. What is trust, what is love and what does that mean? As one of their children described it, “a fine line divides love from misery.” Learning how to be on the right side of that line is the challenge.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday will be released January 10, 2017. I was provided an e-galley from the publisher via Net Galley.