The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 10th 2017
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Mystery
Placidia is seventeen when she meets Major Hockaday and when he proposes that very same day she says yes. That he is a widower and has a small son makes little difference to her. It’s 1865 and given the war there’s no point in waiting for a proper courtship and wedding. In fact, the very next day they set off for the Hockaday’s home. From there, Susan Rivers’s novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday plunges into the war, a young wife left behind on a farm with only a few hands to help, and a mystery that confronts her husband when he returns from the war two years later.
Rivers formats The Second Mrs. Hockaday solely with letters written by Placidia, her aunt and later her son. The novel opens in 1865, shortly after the war ends, with Dia asking her aunt to send her some clothes as she is in jail. Her husband has returned after two years away to learn that she became pregnant while he was gone and that the child is dead. Dia will not speak up in her own defense. By midpoint in the novel she and Hockaday have died and it is left to their son, Achilles, to try and put together the pieces of his parents’ marriage and what happened during the war.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday moves in a non-linear fashion with each present day discovery by Achilles opening the door to the past via his parents’ letters to each other or to other family members. Additionally, he discovers that his mother kept a diary during the war. Because paper was so difficult to come by she wrote in the margins of a copy of David Copperfield. When Rivers begins sharing the journal entries the novel moves into an emotionally painful place. It is here that the full weight of the war is most felt. Dia is a young, highly intelligent and vivacious woman who finds herself in a life without companionship of any kind—where her mind is of less use than her hands and her back. Her loneliness and pain are palpable.
There is enough plot to propel The Second Mrs. Hockaday to a satisfying conclusion, but even as Rivers contracts the plot to Dia’s experiences she expands it to a more universal perspective. There is the dehumanizing brutality of slavery, the soldiers’ life and the grim reminder that in war the combatants are not just on the frontlines. The woman in the agricultural South had to fight against not only the elements for survival, but man as well. Men who used the isolation of farms to take anything and everything they wanted without fear of reprisal. By melding these with the very personal themes of love and marriage, Rivers gives The Second Mrs. Hockaday a timeless feel in the midst of its history.