It’s fitting for a Civil War-era story to be told in letters: The excruciating wait between each hoped-for missive is mirrored in this debut novel’s slow and gradual denouement. Author and playwright Susan Rivers employs not only letters, but also diary entries and inquest reports to tell a story loosely based in fact. In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Placidia Fincher, young and newly wed to a major in the Confederate army, is jailed and accused of adultery and infanticide. Her husband has been away for two years, adding to the intrigue. Only Placidia and her few slaves, particularly one named Achilles, know what transpired.
As attested to in an author’s note, Rivers’ research has been thorough, and she writes convincingly in a mid 19th-century style and mindset. She is adept at creating arresting imagery and constructs a stark contrast between the life of privilege Placidia left and the life of struggle she comes to upon marrying the major, moving to his remote farm, and mothering Charlie, his son by his first wife. After only two days as husband and wife, the major is called back to the front, and his “fair girl” Placidia must run the farm and protect the homestead.
Passages relating to what Placidia and others suffer build slowly and unfold in painstaking detail, making them all the more appalling. The cruelty in a world besieged by war is hard to fully comprehend. Men fought on battlefields, but everyone at home was fighting, too—to survive. In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Rivers gives readers an illuminating glimpse into a part of our country’s past that still has repercussions in the present.