Author: Taylor M. Polites

Title: The Rebel Wife

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Taylor M. Polites has delivered a historical fiction novel set in the post-Civil War South that goes against many of the stereotypes commonly held of that era. The Rebel Wife is a haunting look at a broken society, both inside and out, whose destruction isn't fully complete. While the Northern armies may have defeated the Confederate States physically, the internal class-race, prejudices, fear and hatred among the Southerners have them at an ongoing war within themselves with countless more casualties.

The novel opens with Augusta Branson (Gus) viewing her husband Eli arrive at their plantation on his horse, nearly dead. Though married ten years and having a son Henry together, there is no love between the two. Gus views her marriage to the 25 year older Union sympathizer as a duty to her proud Southern family. Eli has taken advantage of his Northern connections to buy up farms, businesses and lands from the town as people defaulted on their loans. By marrying Eli, Gus ensured that her family would be spared the poverty and shame she saw many of her friends endure.

But once Eli dies from this mysterious illness Gus begins to discover that life around her is not all as it has appeared. While attempting to sort out her husband's finances she begins to unravel a series of secrets that threaten to undo her hope for freedom and security. The drama involves those she has already lost to death (her parents, a treasured brother and now her husband), family members that are still alive, and the household servants who had been former slaves in both Eli and Gus's plantation.

Like Kathryn Stockett's, The Help, Polites uses fiction to uncover racial tensions in society that aren't pretty to behold. Yet The Rebel Wife isn't nearly as entertaining nor has a happy ending as does Stockett's book. Polites book swelters in an oppressive Alabama summer where the heat seems to be rising straight from hell. This story won't be cheerfully discussed between neighbors and book clubs, but will be solemnly read by many and valued for its realism and voice.

The Rebel Wife is written in first person by Gus, which at times can be distracting. While it aides to the descriptions and emotions of Gus finding out about her family's past it seems strange that she is just now becoming aware of her surroundings. Where was her head her first thirty years? Even the first two-thirds of the book Gus lives in denial while being solely self-centered. It can make the reader wonder of their own family life, "What am I pretending not to know?"

The beauty of Polites' work is his character development and prose. Each of his characters adds depth to the story and conversation. He truly appears to be a hardworking writer - in this, his first book, Polites spent years of research in order to paint in the right shades of the South, and he has done so magnificently. His is a voice that should be heard, this time deconstructing myths through Gus's eyes of her generation, and next time, perhaps, the myths of our own.

*This review first published 2/14/2012