By Ekta R. Garg
January 18, 2017
Genre: Historical fiction
Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars
When a new bride must bid goodbye to her soldier husband during the Civil War, she has no idea of the challenges that will come her way. In addition to running an entire farm, she will deal with rogue slaves and wayward men taking full advantage of the separated families caused by the war. Author Susan Rivers writes with compassion and brings her experience as a playwright to the fore of her moving, timeless novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday.
At the age of 17, Placidia Hockaday has no thought of marriage. During the festivities of a family wedding, however, she meets widower and single father Major Gryffth Hockaday and feels a connection to him. When Major Hockaday asks her father for Placidia’s hand, Placidia agrees with little reservation.
The newlyweds get to spend a scant two nights together before Major Hockaday must return to the front lines of battle. Placidia learns to run the huge farm that was once the home of Major Hockaday and his late first wife. In addition to managing the farm, Placidia learns how to handle the slaves and also her most precious charge: her husband’s toddler son, Charles.
Placidia loves Charles immediately, and she proves herself resourceful in running the farm. But when the major comes home at the end of the war, he receives word of a horrifying fact: during his absence, Placidia became pregnant, gave birth, and lost a child who she then buried on their land. Enraged, the major asks for legal proceedings to begin against his wife.
He confronts Placidia but gets no information from her and takes her silence to mean that she was, indeed, unfaithful. Within months Major Hockaday drops all the charges, and he and Placidia reconcile. Their relationship, however, is forever altered, as much by Placidia’s unspeakable circumstances as by Major Hockaday’s post-traumatic stress.
Author Susan Rivers shows her strength in the extensive research she did for The Second Mrs. Hockaday. Setting the book in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the country during the Civil War, creates somber overtones for a book that drives right at the heart of a conflict of this magnitude. Some facets may apply only to the era of the Civil War, but Rivers shows with ease that the struggles of war are timeless.
Despite this being her first novel, Rivers sets for herself an ambitious format: she tells the entire novel through letters, journal entries, and court documents. Not a single standalone piece of narrative comes into play. Some authors would attempt this format and end up letting their story down. Rivers succeeds on every front.
The result is a book that feels intimate on all levels. Its heartbreak and its terror become real because readers hear directly from Placidia, Gryffth Hockaday, and even their children and other family members. The letters the characters share as well as Placidia’s journal all go to show that war can affect people decades after it ends, and no one should take that consequence for granted.
Rivers does use some terms and language from the Civil War era, but she doesn’t let the language get in the way of the story. Readers will find themselves settling into the rhythm of the novel soon enough. For those who enjoy literary or historical fiction with universal overtones, I recommend readers Bookmark The Second Mrs. Hockaday.