The Second Mrs. Hockaday, (Algonquin Books, 272 pages) is an epistolary novel that moves seamlessly between letters to court documents to diary entries. There are chapters that end in the middle of a scene, a diary entry interrupted, leaving the reader to hold his/her breath. The scene continues at the beginning of the next chapter. It is an amazingly effective technique, one that makes us want to race through the pages. The ending of the book?
It’s like a 4th of July fireworks finale, an explosion of revelations, a coming together of all the threads of the story.
Inspired by the true story of a woman who bore an illegitimate child while her husband was away, Rivers has taken this sparse bit of Civil War history and turned it into a tale of an enduring love that triumphs over the devastation wrought by the war. In doing so, she exposes the hardships faced by the women who were left behind when their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons went off to fight against the North.
Seventeen-year-old Placidia Fincher Hockaday has been a bride for just 36 hours when her husband, Major Griffith Hockaday, leaves to rejoin his unit. Placidia is left to care for the Major’s 18-month-old son and his 300 acre farm. Two years later, when the Major returns, he learns of the unspeakable things that have occurred in his absence. His beautiful young wife, Placidia, is either unwilling or unable to share with him the circumstances of the birth and death of her child. The Major seeks an inquest. Placidia is arrested.
In the first chapter of the book, Placidia responds to her cousin Mildred’s questions about the charges leveled against her—adultery and murder—by describing the day she met the Major. Years later, Placidia’s son, Achilles, having read portions of his mother’s diary, describes that meeting between his parents:
“She had known him for less than twenty-four hours and yet she says that when she sat in the parlor at Valois listening to her aunt play the piano and looked at the Major standing against the opposite wall listening also, she felt a cord suspended tightly between his body and hers, invisible but tangible, in the way of music, or weather. It was as if they were already connected by virtue of some unspoken pledge their spirits had made to one another. At the time of writing that entry, she claimed that if she stood quietly on the porch at Holland Creek when the livestock were settled and the hands retired, and if she closed her eyes, stilled her thoughts, and let the sound of the creek rise up to her, she could feel that cord running to Gryffth’s heart in whatever camp or rough fire where he bedded down. Feeling its pull in her breastbone always reassured her that even if she and the Major were to die before the war ended, it meant that their destinies were joined, for better or worse. It meant that finding one another had been no accident.”
The hardships Placidia faces during those two years are overwhelming. The Major fails to appear at a planned meeting in Raleigh, leaving Placidia to make her way back to Holland Creek alone. A group of cavalrymen steal what food she has, drive off her livestock, take what valuables they can find. When they seize the gun Gryffth has given her, she realizes she is no longer the same person.
“In truth I am changed by the event, and not for the better. In the wake of this violation of my home and my person I experience an unfamiliar emotion: fear. I perceive that fear rushes into the spaces left when confidence flees, when a woman realizes that she is no longer a person of any particular importance or authority, as she had long been allowed to believe. It has tipped the balance of the world in an uncanny way.”
The Major eventually learns what happened in his absence. He withdraws the complaint against his wife, as we know he must, if any semblance of justice is to be served.
For all of Placidia’s remaining days, she will be haunted by the things that happened. But Griffith’s arms are around her, finally, and it is enough. “Paradise may have been lost,” she writes in her diary, “but paradise is a bad bargain. It conceals serpents, and is littered with graves.”
Susan Rivers’ decision to write the story as an epistolary is entirely fitting. The early 1860s were a time when people wrote letters, and the letters sometimes went unanswered for weeks or months. When Rivers tacks back and forth in time, juggling her source material, she is mirroring those anxious days during the war when news was slow to arrive. She withholds vital information, doling it out in bits and pieces, and we follow along, willing to wait for the next letter or document, too enthralled to look away. We are at times Cousin Mildred, yearning for Placidia’s explanation for the terrible things that happened. We are Placidia’s husband, horrified by what he learns when he returns from the war. We are Placidia, understanding why she must withhold the secret that threatens to bring ruin to so many.
Throughout the book, Rivers paints a picture of a time when it was possible to contemplate things that might otherwise escape one’s notice. There was time to consider, to look for meanings, to be with the person who wrote the letter or composed the document. The Second Mrs. Hockaday is a faithful depiction of those slower, yet more troubled times.
–Rita Welty Bourke, Kylie’s Ark, 2016