Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.
The Wide World of Southern Literature:
The Rebel Wife by Taylor M. Polites (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
On March 4, 1861, the plantation diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut observed a beautiful woman being sold on an auction block in Montgomery, Alabama—“a bright mulatto… magnificently gotten up in silks and satins.” She recounts her response to the event in her journals:
You know how women sell themselves and are sold in marriage from queens downward, eh? You know what the Bible says about slavery and marriage; poor women! poor slaves!
The Rebel Wife, by first-time novelist Taylor M. Polites, explores this theme in a post-apocalyptic page-turner set in rural, Reconstruction-era Alabama. Polites forces readers to confront myths of the Old South, reject some, and revisit certain exemplars of Southern fiction, including both Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone. More Edgar Allan Poe than Mary Boykin Chesnut (though influenced by both), The Rebel Wife is the story of Augusta Branson, an heiress to one of those mythic bloodlines and old family fortunes who was forced to marry scalawag Eli Branson following the Civil War. Although the marriage secured Augusta relative wealth in the desperate economic times following the War, it also separated her from the plantation families (now destitute) from which she drew her circle of girlhood friends and acquaintances.
The heiress Augusta presents her life and life-changing discoveries in a stream-of- consciousness narrative, opening with her husband’s mysterious and bloody death:
The redness drips from his temples like sweat. It seeps from his armpits and the wrinkled folds of his neck. His skin is tinged watery pink. The bed linens are soaked with jagged marks of red saturation around his body like a grisly halo.
When her former friends resurface at the funeral, Augusta evades general questions concerning Eli’s demise and leaves out the details even when pressed—the blood- and sweat-drenched sheets, her inability to look at Eli or care for him or hold his hand during his last hours. “It was—it was a blood disorder—the heat—it affected Mr. Branson,” Augusta reports, but even as she relays this she begins to doubt the simplicity of the answer: There are whisperings of a blood plague spreading among the poorest classes, and though the doctors and landed gentry laugh off the rumors, Augusta’s servants have begun carrying protective charms in their pockets.
Everything Augusta thought she knew about Eli is thrown into question when she learns the state of his financial affairs from the trustee of the estate, her trusted cousin Judge. Judge informs her that her husband died with substantial debts, and his will leaves everything to their son Henry. The resources can only be accessed by Judge—and only after the debts are settled.
Augusta is incredulous but helpless. Her husband was not popular among the white former-aristocracy, and had few real confidantes other than his servant Simon, a former slave. In desperation, Augusta turns to Simon, hoping he can shed some light on her new predicament:
“Simon, were you familiar with Mr. Branson’s business affairs?”
This is ridiculous. Asking a Negro man about my husband’s business.
Simon’s face doesn’t change. He kneels at the vines and picks up the trowel, digging into the earth with a sharp stroke. “To some extent. Did you have some questions about Mr. Branson’s business?”
According to Simon, Eli Branson died soon after asking Simon to deliver a package containing the enormous sum of five thousand dollars in U.S. currency (rather than worthless Confederate money) to Birmingham. But the package has disappeared. Suddenly, Augusta realizes, everyone in Albion, Alabama, is a suspect in Eli’s death and the disappearance of the money.
In order to survive, Augusta must acquaint herself with both the near-stranger she married—an embarrassingly freedman-friendly, war-rich Lincoln Republican, and one of the few white Albion, Alabama, natives who could vote and hold office after the South was enveloped back into the Union (Confederates were stripped of voting rights unless, or until, pardoned)—and the dark secrets of the man her husband was before she’d ever heard of him. Was he a kind master or a murderous hunter of runaway slaves? A rich and successful businessman or the perpetrator of a failed Ponzi scheme that has left her and her son destitute and dependent alternately on servants (whom she cannot pay) and the Klan-ish “Knights of the White Cross”?
Polites’s prose is stripped of the exaggerated dialect that tends to characterize black voices in Lost Cause plantation romances, and while this may come off as cold and compromising to readers nostalgic for Old South tropes, the book is stronger having dispensed with the massas and y’ss’ms—and accessible to a wider audience. Uncle Remus may have been a beloved Southern archetype, but he didn’t publish his journals—Frederick Douglass did, and the freed men and women in The Rebel Wife borrow their voices more from him than from Remus. For many Southerners, even ones who love Br’er Rabbit, this will come as a relief, especially since The Rebel Wife is exploring an acutely terrifying time—after the Civil War, when fortunes were gone, when former slaves were still not free, when women’s futures depended largely on money and men.
This is the gloomy world that Augusta Branson must navigate. As Scarlett O’Hara was Margaret Mitchell’s jazz-age reconstruction of the Southern Belle, Augusta Branson is Polites’s 21st century reimagining of a post-War heroine—a beautiful, strong woman susceptible to the pressures and prejudices of her era but self-aware and sensitive enough to acknowledge racial inequalities—the type of person who might fight to outgrow a system that benefitted her race and class while degrading and devaluing her sex.
Mr. Polites discusses his novel The Rebel Wife and growing up in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Smithsonian and Library of Congress have some incredible 1930s footage of old Confederate soldiers.