Review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers
Algonquin, 2017. 254 pp. $26
After her half-sister’s wedding in rural South Carolina, seventeen-year-old Placidia Fincher makes a bold decision. She accepts a marriage proposal from Major Gryffyth Hockaday, a widower considerably older than herself, whom she has never met before and to whom she has spoken but briefly during the wedding reception. Over the next two days, Placidia has cause to wonder whether she made a mistake but also a sense that her heart has led her to her true love. Unfortunately, she has no time to figure out which, for the year is 1863, and the Civil War claims his attention. Recalled to his regiment sooner than anticipated, Major Hockaday leaves his bride in a perilous, unsettled situation. She must put aside her fears that he may be killed at any moment; raise his young son by a previous marriage; manage their farm, something she has never done; and face various threats to which she’s particularly vulnerable, as a young woman, alone.
What a splendid premise, and what a strong way to begin a novel. However, that’s not how Rivers approaches her narrative. Rather, she picks up the story from the major’s return from war in 1865, whereupon he discovers that Placidia has given birth to a child that couldn’t possibly be his, and that the law has charged her with murdering the infant. This is a pretty good premise too.
Nevertheless, about halfway through its short narrative, The Second Mrs. Hockaday goes wrong for me, despite having so much in its favor. I confess that I dislike epistolary novels, but that’s not my problem here; Rivers handles the form expertly, using letters, diary entries, and legal depositions to advance the plot. I also admire her prose, which captures Placidia’s voice beautifully, as when she dances with Hockaday at her half-sister’s wedding:
His hands were calloused and he held me at a distance in the way Abner [a slave] holds a fresh coonskin–like he was fixing to nail me to a shed before the smell made his eyes water. . . .He was telling the truth when he said he was a poor dancer and he was so tall I had to tilt my head back to see his jaw and his Adam’s apple while we danced. But as the music ended he guided me into the alcove in the dining room where his left hand slid down my back while his right hand pulled me to his side. I stumbled. He smoothly righted me with his hands on my waist. Didn’t I tell you I was clumsy, I said, and I must have been blushing because I fancied my hair was on fire.
Rivers further excels at creating a wartime ambience, based on painstaking research and telling detail. South Carolina was the first state to secede, and Major Hockaday’s Thirteenth South Carolina Regiment fights with stalwart pride, but the landowners she portrays strike poses while shirking their contribution to the cause. Deserters pretending to gather supplies for the army rob the countryside blind, and Placidia suffers their depredations.
So where’s the beef? Simple: Rivers gives the game away too soon. The reader sees how the case against Placidia will go, and though the why comes later, to me, that’s disappointing. I wish the author had let the crime and the mystery surrounding it hold center stage throughout. But maybe that’s the drawback of the epistolary style, whose very economy, though it drives the narrative at a good clip, undoes any chance to linger or spread out, so that the resolution comes too quickly.
But Rivers has something else in mind too, and that’s where I begin to lose confidence. Slavery gets a light touch here; too light, in my opinion. The racial divide tinges the narrative but doesn’t infuse it, as if Placidia were holding it at arm’s length, much as Hockaday held her during their first dance. And yet, this is the Civil War. Brutality against slaves occurs, but, with one exception, never at her hands (and she regrets it as an economic necessity). It’s always someone else, somewhere else, who supports the evil institution and will kill to preserve it, whereas Placidia, and the people she loves, at times sound like 1960s liberals, working for change.
Not only do I find this hard to believe, I see only the feeblest connection between this narrative and the crime of which Placidia stands accused. No doubt, it must be uncomfortable to write a novel in which otherwise good people are slaveowners, and I understand the urge to redeem them. But Rivers would have convinced me more readily had she not bothered and let the main story, which needs no adornment, carry The Second Mrs. Hockaday.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.