In the summer of 2014, while shut inside a South Carolina library, author Susan Rivers came across the summary of an 1865 inquest.
It described a Confederate soldier returning home from the Civil War to rumors that his young wife had become pregnant in his absence, had given birth and after the baby died, buried it on their farm. When the remains were exhumed, the soldier wanted his wife prosecuted for murder. The couple’s subsequent reconciliation absolved the pending legal action, but his wife never revealed the identity of the baby’s father or the cause of death.
This inquest summary served as the inspiration for both the plot of Rivers’ mesmerizing debut novel, “The Second Mrs. Hockaday,” and its structure, comprised solely of letters, diary entries and inquests.
In the spring of 1863, 17-year-old Placidia Fincher falls in love with Major Gryffth Hockaday, a man nearly twice her age, after a brief encounter at her father’s home. “On my deathbed I shall remember that April day if I remember anything at all,” she reminisces in a letter to her cousin Mildred.
Immediately after their marriage, Placidia moves with her new husband to his 300-acre farm in Holland Creek, S.C. Two days later, the Major is called back to war. Placidia is left behind with the Major’s infant son from his first marriage, and a handful of enslaved field hands and servants.
Life in Holland Creek is brutal for the wide-eyed Placidia, who, according to cousin Mildred, is “a creature of almost Edenic innocence … Eve before she tasted the apple.” As the war wears on, Placidia faces increasingly desperate circumstances. Farm hands abandon her to migrate north. Soldiers ransack and loot her home. Ice storms and floods threaten to destroy the crops. Her spirits are crushed further when her husband fails to appear at their planned reunion in Raleigh and his letters to her become few.
Over time, Placidia cultivates razor-sharp instincts for both motherhood and agriculture, and proves herself an accomplished overseer. In the waning months of the war, when a Union victory is imminent, when she is weak from a pregnancy she guards in secrecy, she makes a vital decision. She offers the planters a percentage of the crop’s yield to prevent them from abandoning her before harvest. “I did not believe my stepson Charles and I would survive that winter without radical measures.”
Rivers sublimely examines Major Hockaday and Placidia’s emotional evolutions during their two-year separation. In letters to his wife, the once confident and gallant Major confesses the horrors of the battlefield as the Confederacy buckles under defeat. “My darling wife, I didn’t think I had a prayer of living through it, and sometimes the fact of doing so is difficult to swallow. I won’t try to tell you what I saw and heard except to say that hell no longer holds any terror for me.”
Placidia sheds her idyllic fantasies about marriage and discovers a strength and perseverance she never knew she had. “What I gained by marrying Gryffth Hockaday was a harder version of myself, but a less deluded one. Happiness may not have been a benefit of taking such a man for a husband, but survivability was.”
When the Major returns and learns Placidia became pregnant in his absence, gave birth and buried a newborn boy on the farm, he files charges against her for concealing the infant’s death. Placidia is jailed. Speculation about the baby’s paternity and race spreads throughout South Carolina. Was the father a field hand or Placidia’s brother-in-law, Floyd Parris, the husband of her gossipy stepsister Agnes? Floyd defends himself and Placidia, and lays blame for the alleged crime squarely on the Major. “If anyone deserves to be prosecuted, and I daresay there are some credible candidates, this inquest should look to the man who abandoned an enamored young wife and vulnerable son in a war-torn world, failing to provide for them or protect them and denigrating the efforts of those individuals moved to ease their plight with whatever resources they possessed.”
About halfway through the novel, the narration advances nearly three decades into the future, when descendants attempt to piece together the events of the past with Placidia’s diary entries inscribed inside an old copy of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” In its pages, her despair during the war is uncensored. “Sometimes I think I no longer recognize what is real and what I have fabricated in my mind to make the real parts more palatable.”
An epistolary novel – a novel comprised of documents such as diary entries and correspondence – has the potential to be a dry and tedious read. With little dialogue and ample internal thoughts, it takes an adept storyteller to raise the stakes high enough to keep the reader engaged. It’s a tall order, too, to write an original Civil War novel, particularly when Charles Frazier so expertly portrayed a wife’s survival without her husband in the 1997 National Book Award-winning “Cold Mountain.”
But Rivers easily conquers these challenges. Her masterful prose captures the nuances of Southern mid-19th century diction. Each patiently unspooled revelation feels organic, urgent and essential to its form. Placidia’s voice is penetrating and her observations about the singular truths of war are vivid and illuminating. “One woman losing her sanctity or even her sanity is insignificant when compared to the butcheries committed on both sides in this shameful war,” she writes. “Maybe all we can hope for is to be so exhausted by hate that we settle for the ceremonies of reconciliation.”
‘The Second Mrs. Hockaday’
By Susan Rivers
272 pages, $25.95