Placidia only knew her future husband for 48 hours before she married him. They met when he bought a mule from her father and fell in fascination (if not love) dancing at her step-sister’s wedding. But the new Mrs. Hockaday is separated from her new husband when he is summoned back to Stonewall Jackson’s regiment two days after the wedding. They two of them remain apart until the end of the Civil War. The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers, is told in letters and documents as others try to figure out what happened during the Hockadays’ separation, Placidia’s trial for infanticide, and the aftermath.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday is divided into parts that span 30 years of family history. The first part is a series of letters between Placidia and her relative, Mildred. Placidia is in jail, awaiting trial for supposedly killing the child she conceived a bore while Major Hockaday was at war. Placidia infuriates her cousin by talking around what happened, avoiding all direct questions. She tells Mildred about how she and the Major met, their rapid marriage, and their farewell. Just before the trial is about to begin, the novel jumps ahead from 1865 to 1892. Placidia’s son, Achilles, is told by the Major to destroy Placidia’s papers and the diary she kept on the illustration pages of a copy of David Copperfield.
The Hockadays might have been an ordinary loving couple if it hadn’t been for timing and setting. They live in rural South Carolina, which was overrun with deserters and bandits while most of the men were fighting in the Confederate Army. While the Major fights in huge battles at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, seeing all the horrors of the Civil War, Placidia has to deal with floods, the aforementioned deserters and bandits, and a disintegrating way of life. Rivers doesn’t make the mistake of writing southerners with modern sensibilities about slavery. The Hockadays do own slaves. The Major is a Confederate. But it’s hard not to sympathize with these characters, even without their lightning strike love for each other.
I wasn’t sure what to think of Placidia after the first part. She doesn’t deny having a child and that the child died. It’s clear, however, that she’s protecting someone or several someones. It takes Achilles’ later efforts and the diary to put it all together. By the end, I deeply admired Placidia’s strength and love of family. What begins as a sinister mystery becomes a moving story of a woman and a man trying to make peace with violence and love. Both characters suffer from what we would now call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but in a time when men were expected to be soldiers without complaint and women were expected to be reputable above all else. I very much enjoyed this book. The books that can surprise me are always a joy to read.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 January 2017.