“I am Gus Sedlaw. I cannot forget my name. Augusta Belier Blackwood-Sedlaw. And then Branson, a name I will bear like the mark of Cain until I die. Eli’s name that was put upon me. Ten years ago, I was not married. But wanted to be, I think. Who knows what I wanted or what I was thinking. That day did not seem possible until it happened. Like Eli dying. When I talk about my marriage, it will be about a thing that no longer exists. Ten years gone in a moment. None of that matters now, anyway.” (42)
The Rebel Wife by Taylor M. Polites is set in Alabama during the reconstruction period of the Civil War. As you can imagine Alabama is pretty much a broken civilization after the war and all of the citizens have to deal with the reality of their situations. Thus begins the story of Augusta ‘Gus’ Branson. Gus was born into antebellum nobility but as the Civil War waged on she was forced into marrying for money in order to protect her family name. The man she married, Eli Branson, did not love her and did not tell her much of anything but she did not think much of this. It was not her responsibility to know what was going on in her husband’s world. Or at least, that is what she thought before her husband died of a mysterious blood plague. Now that he is gone, she is forced to fend for herself and protect her son by accepting the realities of her situation. The first reality she must accept is that her social standing was strained by her marriage due to her husband’s believed overt loyalty to the colored population in Alabama. The second reality she must accept is that she is alone and very much unprotected in a community that has been destroyed by racial prejudice and violence. The third reality she must accept is that the fortune she thought she would inherit from her husband’s death may not exist. Oh, and if that isn’t bad enough, she must also accept the fact that the deadly blood fever is spreading fast and killing everyone around her. Sound intense enough for you, yet? Believe me, it is. Through all of this, Gus is forced to find the strength to question everything she knows and determine if she is strong enough to cross the boundaries of hate which are so close to everything she knows and thought she loved.
When I saw this book sitting on the shelf at the book store, it immediately attracted my attention. I loved the cover, and after picking it up and reading the inside of it, I knew I would love the story too. I love reading about strong female characters especially when they are working against tough social circumstances doing their best to do what they think is right. Gus Branson never really paid attention very much before her husband died. She did was she was supposed to and lived the life that she believed she was supposed to live in order to keep her family name alive. Yet, once she finds out her husbands secrets, and how far he went against the Confederates during the war in order to support the colored population, she is quickly forced into making decisions of her own merit. What I liked most about the character of Gus was that she never let anyone force her into something. She trusted her gut instinct on things, even the things that she was less knowledgeable about, and never let anyone push her around. If anything, she was the one who was often doing the pushing as she searched for her answers and her truth. Spunky fire-strong rebellious Southern women for the win!
Besides the characterization of Gus, another thing that I loved about The Rebel Wife was the way in which Taylor M. Polites set out to break down many of the basic Southern literary archetypes including the chivalrous Southern gentleman, the good mammy, and the defenseless Southern belle. In each of his characters, you can see sparks of the influence which these archetypes have had on Southern history as well as multiple Southern literary characters. You see the typical preconceived chivalrous Southern gentleman (who also turn out to be complete assholes), you see the typical good mammy (who does whatever she can to protect Gus), and you also see the typical antebellum Southern belles (who are more than willing to turn their back on Gus the moment she aligns herself with anything outside the normal lines of Southern nobility). Through the language (some profanity that was associated with the time period) and the descriptions of the settings and clothing, you are also able to see how these concepts were developed and how their roles changed during the reconstruction period in the South. By using both the historical links to the past and the attempt to shatter the myths which may still exist in present day Southern antebellum society, Taylor M. Polites creates an unique story in The Rebel Wife and for me an unforgettable character in Augusta ‘Gus’ Branson.
Disclosure: Purchased Copy