The Second Mrs. Hockaday
By Susan Rivers
Algonquin Books, January 10, 2017
272 pages, $19.19
Reviewed by Eva Raczka
Susan Rivers’ novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday, is a coming of age tale set during the Civil War. A young bride, Placidia, must learn to run a farm in South Carolina while her new husband, the Confederate Major Hockaday, returns to the battlefield. Written as an epistolary novel in three parts, the prose is vibrant, with turns of satisfying Southern descriptions, “the darkness was creeping upwards with its cool breath and sugar scents.”
Letter-writing, diary entries, reports–these suit Ms. Rivers’ novel; it has the feeling of deferred intimacy, apt for the Civil War, a time when letters went unanswered and unconfirmed. Long stretches could pass before communication was re-established and in this age of instant gratification, this novel refreshes the keen longing and desire that comes with waiting. In a letter to her cousin, Placidia states, “I believed him, you understand. About marriage being a refuge. I want to believe him still. But lifetimes have passed since I woke up beside my husband. And I can no longer claim to be cherished.”
Throughout her letters, clues are given as to a terrible and monstrous event during this time on the farm. Placidia withholds her secret to save others who were involved, but withholding it also from the reader creates some distance from the anguish she recounts. This distance made it hard to feel empathetic, though I believe Ms. Rivers did this purposefully in an attempt to have the reader relate to Major Hockaday, who is also kept in the dark. It is a mostly successful attempt, though I couldn’t help but wonder if the story would hold more power if I knew what had happened right away.
While withholding information from the reader is effective in prolonging the reading, I wanted to find out what happened and why this mystery was important to the characters. I find that if I am allowed into the letters and diary entries of Placidia, I wanted to be in her head as well, which means knowing all of the information that she knows. I would empathize much more with her character if I knew everything.
The reader finally discovers the real story behind Placidia’s letters in the form of her diary. The final diary entries are written on the back of pictures in a copy of David Copperfield and are illuminating, providing the true narrative. The reader follows her through the start of her marriage and life on the farm to an account of what happened to her before her beloved Major returned home. Encountering the trials that come with running a farm through natural disaster, thieves, and those who target a woman living alone, Placidia writes her diary with the maturity and wherewithal of a person who has witnessed and participated in horrific experiences, but her character is not broken or bitter.
The diary entries are revealed through her son’s, Achilles, decision to read them and share them. Several decisions are made in this novel, and hard ones: the decision to marry and leave home, the decision to read or not to read a personal diary containing hard truths, the decision to confront a difficult and ugly past or to leave it alone and ignore it. These choices are universal in scope, and I felt the closest to the characters making these leaps into the unknown. They know that their actions will have a major impact, but they choose bravely to make those choices and accept the consequences.
Susan Rivers lets her characters make these hard decisions and imagines the arc of how these decisions change the direction of a life. This is what ultimately sits after reading The Second Mrs. Hockaday, the beautiful possibilities that she has created in this novel, still relevant today. The suffering of the past can inform the actions of generations, and we can face the mistakes made in the past, or ignore them. In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Ms. Rivers asks the reader to face grief head-on.
In a stirring scene at the end of the novel, the Major says, “How can I live knowing what you have endured? How can I live knowing that I let it happen?” and Placidia says, “The answer is: we shall have to learn.”