The Rebel Wife, expertly written by Taylor M. Polites, is a genre-subverting novel, framed within the Southern Gothic tradition that is very much a meditation on the purposeless of death, which is immediately evident in the first sentence:
â€œI know that Eli is dying.â€
Set in the town of Albion in Reconstruction-Era Alabama â€“ roughly ten years after the Civil War â€“ The Rebel Wife begins with the death of Eli Branson, a wealthy landowner and entrepreneur with sympathies toward the recently emancipated Negroes. After his death, his wife, Augusta, is informed that Eliâ€™s estate will be handled by her cousin, Judge Heppert, another formerly wealthy businessman with political aspirations, whose views on the Negroes could not be more different than Eliâ€™s. Augustaâ€™s world â€“ her past, present, and future â€“ are sent reeling when she learns from Judge that Eli was broke, that his books and ledgers appeared to show fraud, embezzlement, and the bribing of politicians. Broke and fearful of the Knights of the White Cross â€“ a hate group whose actions have been becoming increasingly more violent â€“ and paranoid of the spreading blood fever that killed her husband, Augusta must traverse the life she thought she had and find the truth that lies hidden in the margins of her existence.
â€œA Negro man had been found dead, shot in the face on the road to Chattanooga with a whitewash cross on his chest. Since then rumors had spread, each day bringing more tales of Union sympathizers harassed, black families burnt alive in their homes, men hanged from trees, white and black, Republican and scalawag and freedmen, subject to some terrifying justiceâ€¦ â€¦Everyone said the war was over, but there was no end to the dead and wounded. They just didnâ€™t print them up on casualty lists anymore.â€
Polites expertly creates this hidden world that lies at the recesses of our memories from Middle School History classes, but as what this novel will become notorious for â€“ nothing is what it seems. Polites shows us the darkness of this period in American History, while subverting the genres and archetypes we might expect. The prim Southern Belle, Augusta, recently widowed is fiery, with a hidden harshness to her, not to mention a reoccurring predilection for laudanum abuse. Her late husband, Eli, has enough skeletons to fill all our closets, and Judge Heppert, the southern gentleman is the antithesis of his archetype. Simon, one of the Branson familyâ€™s former slaves, now servant, is the steadiest and most reliable, and frankly, one of the most intelligent and honest characters in the novel. Beyond all this, the young veterans of the Civil War, Buck, Augustaâ€™s former flame, and Mike, her brother, are not full of the glory and pride and courage you would expect. And when all the chips are down and the main characterâ€™s lives are spiraling away from them, we see who all these characters really are.
The author has crafted a novel that perpetually keeps the reader on the edge of their seats. Borrowing elements from the mystery and suspense novels we have all read, Polites builds steady tension throughout the entire story, as pieces of the conspiracy fall into place, while others fall away. The Rebel Wife is difficult to categorize. It is framed within the Southern Gothic tradition, borrows elements from genre fiction, but its heart is entirely literary. This novel is the story of a young widow, and the search for a new meaning and purpose after the death of her husband. It just so happens that there are other people in her life who want their piece of the vast amount of money she is supposed to inherit. On top of this is the spreading blood fever all while her dances with laudanum become more frequent.
â€œThree small drops fall into a glass of water. They seem to glow as they dissipate in ribbons. I take a breath and wipe the sweat off my mouth. My hands tremble. The water is warm, with a bitter taste. I gulp at it until the glass is emptyâ€¦ â€¦I feel like I am drifting away. The feeling is gentle. I lie wrapped in its folds. I abandon myself to it, not fighting the waves as they carry me off.â€
Politesâ€™ style and voice are what really endow The Rebel Wife with the heart and soul it requires to function as a new and profound novel. He is a master of building tension. At times his prose is terse, almost Hemingway-esque, while at others, it is full of beautiful imagery and descriptions. He perfectly balances between language that is stunning, sublime even, and the contrastingly sharp and abrasive. Polites makes these thoughtful shifts at all the right moments and the transitions are seamless. The reader is pulled in by the initial simplicity of the story and language, with character motivations with which we can all sympathize. But as the story progresses we become acutely aware of the perpetual sense of death and fear during this time. The deaths of soldiers for a cause, the deaths of friends and loved ones to the blood fever and the Knights of the White Cross, and Augusta often wonders the purpose of all this dying, but inÂ The Rebelâ€™s Wife climax, Augusta must answer these questions for herself and save her own life.
I wonâ€™t give it all away, Just know that Polites will lead you deep into his world, and even deeper still, to a point where you wonâ€™t be able to escape, to a point where you wonâ€™t be able to put the book down.
Tyler Grimm is a novelist, screenwriter, and short fiction writer, currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through Wilkes University. He is a contributing writer forÂ Celebrate Gettysburg Magazine, and has recently begun reviewing fiction forÂ PANK Magazine. He was a judging reader for theÂ James Jones Fellowship Award in 2011, and has recently begun the process of starting a local writing workshop near him. His short film,Asthenia, is in the early stages of production. He has been working on his first novel, tentatively entitledÂ Closer Than They Appear. Tyler lives in suburban Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and his dachshund.