The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Author | Susan Rivers
Algonquin | January 2017
Hardcover: 272 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Civil War
August 19, 1865
Dearest Mildred, Of all the misgivings to which we women are prone, none is more pernicious than the suspicion that we were too easily won.
Much like Fair and Tender Ladies (Lee Smith) or the Color Purple (Alice Walker), The Second Mrs. Hockaday is told in letters, diaries and correspondence. The book is loosely based on fact.
The book opens with a letter written by Placidia Fincher Hockaday from the Holland County, South Carolina jail dated July 20, 1865. The letter is addressed to her cousin, Mildred. The details of her incarceration are left out of the letter.
She reminisces in that letter about the memorable April day she first met her husband, Major Gryffth Hockaday, when she was 17. “On my deathbed I shall remember that April day if I remember anything at all…”
She had spent most of the memorable day riding a spirited horse and arrived back at her father’s farm, sweaty, dirty and wild-haired. She discovers her father talking to a mysterious Confederate officer, taller and thinner [than father] with a wind-burned face as craggy as a shagbark stump.
The Major stays with the Fincher family overnight to attend Placidia’s step-sister’s wedding. We learn that Major Hockaday’s first wife, Janet, died recently leaving a child, Charles. The morning after the wedding, Placidia’s surprised father tells her the Major has made an offer of marriage. Placidia’s relationship with her step-mother and step-siblings is strained and her father is dying. Believing a better future lies with the Major she accepts the offer of marriage despite only meeting him hours before.
The newlyweds arrive at the Major’s farm and it is not the vision Placidia expected. The farm is failing, rundown, and too few slaves to work it properly. Two days after they arrive, the Major is called back to war service leaving the 17 year old bride alone in this new strange world to tend an infant and manage the affairs of a failing Southern farm.
Two years pass before the Hockadays reunite. The Major, headstrong and trigger-tempered arrives to discover that his wife has born a child in his absence. The child died. His immediate reaction was fury and he accuses Placidia of murder. He presses charges and she is arrested.
Placidia’s life and that of the Major’s over those two years of separation are told in correspondence that flips back and forth in time between wartime and their lives after the war, producing a somewhat disjointed story line. The truth behind Placidia’s accused crime isn’t revealed until near the end and is as heartbreaking and ruthless as you imagine it must have been.
As a reflection of the times, the story poignantly describes the plight of the slaves, the horrors of war and the struggles of all Southern families to survive during and after the war. Their stories are heartbreaking. There are secondary characters that will turn your stomach. There are moments that will leave you filled with hope for the future. I found the final chapters had the most meat and were worth the long tease to what really happened to Placidia. The “crime” would prove to be a dark personally held secret that percolated behind the ether of daily life through three generations. In the end, the reader is left to wonder if Placidia’s final decision was wise.
My overall opinion was very positive. The violent scenes were handled carefully; accurate enough to be honest but not extreme enough to be overly graphic. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in historical fiction.
I would like to thank Netgalley.com and the publisher, Algonquin Books/Algonquin Young Readers, for the ARC e-reader in exchange for my unbiased review.