Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Title:  The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Author:  Susan Rivers
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1616205814 / 978-1616205812

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On my deathbed I shall remember that April day if I remember anything at all."

Favorite Quote:  "Honesty has become my creed and my salvation; it is my only habitual practice. If by telling the truth I cause harm to someone blameless, someone who acted selflessly in my interest, then I cannot say anything. I will be silent on the matter."

Major Gryffth Hockaday and a considerably younger seventeen year old Placidia Finchler meet in 1863 in war-ravaged South Carolina. Within the next day, they are married. Placidia leaves her beloved father and travels with her husband, a man she barely knows, to start a new life at his farm. They arrive and begin their married life. A mere two days later, Major Hockaday leaves to resume his post on the front lines of the Civil War.

Placidia is left to cope with her new life. This life includes a farm that must be run, with livestock to be cared for and crops to planted and harvested. It includes Charles, Major Hockaday's son from this first marriage. It includes the slaves and workers on the farm; some are receptive to their new mistress, and some are not. It includes new neighbors and townspeople. Again, some are receptive to the newcomer, and some are not.

Fast forward many months. Placidia is in jail for the death of her newborn child, who is found dead and buried on the farm. Major Hockaday has returned but, given his time away, is clearly not the father of the child. Placidia stands accused of adultery and murder. She refuses to name the father and refuses to say how the child was birthed or how the infant died. She may hang for her lack of defense.

What happened at the farm? What happened while the Major was at war? This is the mystery of this book. The author's note at the end explains that while fiction, this book is inspired by the actual case of Elizabeth and Arthur Kennedy. The note also includes the sources used as research for the book.

The book comes at the mystery from multiple directions. First, the book depicts Placidia through her letters to her cousin from where she is held pending the inquest. Second, journal entries and other documents build the events of what happened while the Major was away. Third, Major Hockaday and Placidia's adult children attempt to unravel the complex relationship of their parents years after they are gone in an attempt to understand their own history.

Interestingly, although the inclusion of the children's perspective does not answer the mystery, it does immediately say that whatever occurred was resolved between the Major and Placidia for they go on to create a married life together. It answers the question of the outcome of the case - Placidia does not indeed hang for her supposed crime.

The books weaves back and forth. I do guess at what happened on the farm but not the specific characters involved. Thus, when that climax comes, it is not a surprise. In other words, the mystery is not that much of a mystery. What keeps me reading in this book is the author's ability to place the reader in the civil war era and to see the trials of the women the soldiers left behind. The first person epistolary format works well to bring to life the images of scarcity, deprivations, raiders and looters, survival and slavery. For that history, the book is a captivating story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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