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This reading group guide for The Rebel Wife includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Taylor M. Polites. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Augusta “Gus” Branson, born of a prominent Southern family made destitute by the Civil War, is forced by her family into marriage with a wealthy upstart. Ten years after her marriage and the end of the war, she watches her husband Eli die from a horrifying blood fever. During the horror of Eli's swift demise, his most trusted servant, freed slave Simon, urgently questions Gus about a missing package that contains bribe money meant to sway politicians in an upcoming election. Gus plans to flee her Alabama town’s suffocating poverty and social constrictions, but once she realizes her husband’s fortune vanished in the Panic of 1873, she sets out to find the package.
Augusta begins to wake to the realities that surround her as a widowed woman in the antebellum South during Reconstruction: her social standing is stained by her marriage, she is alone and unprotected in a community that is being destroyed by racial prejudice and violence, and the deadly blood fever is ravaging her town. If Gus and Simon can find the missing package full of money before anyone else does, she and her son will be able to escape almost certain death, and Simon will be able to escape the racial injustice of the South. Yet Gus will soon learn that nothing is as she believed and everyone she trusts is hiding something from her.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Rebel Wife opens, “I know that Eli is dying.” What is the mood of this first chapter, which shows the gruesome death of Eli Branson, and how does it affect the tone of the entire novel?
2. Describe how Gus’s attitudes toward race and equality evolve over the course of the novel. How does she treat Simon, Rachel, and Emma at first? What lessons does she learn about the realities of the black experience of Reconstruction throughout the novel? How does her behavior toward her servants change as a result?
3. Although Eli dies in the first chapter of TheRebel Wife, we learn a lot about him through Gus’s discoveries. How does Gus feel about Eli at the beginning of the novel? How does her opinion of her late husband change as she learns more about his past, such as his former career as a slave catcher and his work for the Union League and Freedmen’s Bureau?
4. Early in the novel, Gus describes her son Henry: “He will grow up to be smart as a whip. He may favor Eli Branson on the outside, but inside he is a Sedlaw. I know it as surely as I know my own name.” Discuss Gus’s relationship with Henry. In what ways does he take after her? Why does Gus feel wary of Henry’s attachment to Emma?
5. Even though the Civil War is long over, “Judge said there is still a war going on.” What was his standing in Albion before the war? Consider how his power and influence have changed since the Civil War. How did the war change his fortunes? How does he try to keep fighting the war, and why does he fail?
6. Consider the relationship between Gus and Simon. How does Gus feel about her husband’s trusted servant at the beginning of the novel? How does Simon slowly earn Gus’s trust? Which scene serves as a turning point in their relationship?
7. Discuss what we learn about the Civil War through Gus’s memories. What happened to the young men of Albion who joined the Confederate war efforts, specifically Hill, Mike, and Buck? How do Mike and Buck, in particular, demonstrate the lasting consequences of the war?
8. Consider Gus’s struggle with laudanum throughout the novel. How did she first try the drug, and why does it still have a hold on her? How does laudanum hold her back in her efforts to find Eli’s package, and how does she use the laudanum against Judge in the end?
9. Rachel tells Gus, “There isn’t any future for colored folks down here.” Discuss the fate of the freed slaves in Alabama during the postwar years. Why do Rachel, Big John, and Simon resolve to leave for Kansas? What fate do you think awaits Simon there?
10. Consider Gus’s position with Bama Buchanan and the other society women of Albion, “all such painful gossips,” who visit her after Eli’s death. How do Bama and her friends treat Gus at the funeral? When does their behavior change, and why?
11. When Gus discovers that Eli purchased her mother’s war bonds, she realizes, “Eli collected things of value and he wanted me.” How does Gus feel when she realizes that Mama and Judge “sold” her to Eli in marriage? How does this transaction help Gus understand the horrors of slavery?
12. Consider the possible origins of the blood fever that sweeps through Albion. What seems to have caused this outbreak of sickness? Do you believe Rachel’s superstitions regarding the fever? Why or why not?
13. Discuss the role of women in the South during Reconstruction. What challenges does Gus face as a Southern woman? From proper manners to medical practices, how does Gus challenge the customs of her society?
14. At the end of TheRebel Wife, Gus states, “And Simon will come back. I know he will.” Why is Gus so confident of Simon’s return? Do you agree with her that Simon will return after establishing a new settlement in Kansas? Why or why not?
15. The Rebel Wife is full of interesting details about life in the South during Reconstruction. Discuss what you learned from reading the novel, from race relations to mourning practices.
4. Huntsville, Alabama was Taylor M. Polites’s inspiration for the fictional town of Albion. Find out what’s going on in Huntsville today and imagine what you would do there if you made a trip: http://www.huntsville.org/visitors/play/.
5. Treat your book club to a movie night and screen the Reconstruction classic Gone with the Wind. Serve your guests ice-cold sweet tea, and enjoy the show!
A Conversation with Taylor M. Polites
Tell us how you decided to write a novel set in Alabama during Reconstruction. What first inspired you to set your novel in this troubled time and place?
Growing up in Alabama, I was fascinated by the remnants of what people romantically referred to as the “Old South.” Gone With the Wind was a book I first read when I was thirteen and it captivated me. From there, I began reading and seeing as much as I could of this “Old South,” from memoirs and histories to preserved plantation homes and Civil War battlefields. But as I read more, I discovered that while the actual events before and during the Civil War were re-fought and re-lived in thousands of different ways, Southerners had very little to say about Reconstruction, except that it was “bad.” In my research, however, Reconstruction was the critical coda to the story of the Civil War. You could not understand the war without thinking about Reconstruction, what was tried, how people lived and where things stood at its close in the mid-1870’s. An incredible amount of change occurred between 1861 and 1876. The great tragedy of this period of American history is how the change that people envisioned was abandoned, left to later generations to finish. I wanted to write a book that did not talk simply about the upheavals of the war, but addressed where people were when it started and where they were after Reconstruction was given up. I wanted there to be that sense of loss, but also hope for the future. And I wanted, like so many who have written about the South, to tell the story as I have learned it.
You reveal that Huntsville, Alabama was the basis for your fictional setting of Albion. What is Huntsville like today, as compared to the “Albion” of the past? How did you go about imagining an entire historical community?
When I was a teen in Huntsville, after the seeming moment of epiphany when I read Gone With the Wind, I became obsessed with all things “Old South.” Somehow, I was amazed to discover that the landscape and history and architecture and people could all be combined into a STORY. I imagined Southern market towns and county seats. I drew maps of them, and then I drew the houses and landscaped the gardens. I drew architectural plans of the houses and then named the people in them and gave them stories. All of these river and railroad towns were imagined with Huntsville as the starting point. The research I continued to do, branching out into more sophisticated sources, continuously fed into the imagining of what ultimately became Albion. I have spent many years on the streets of Albion and once the story was set, it was very easy to get in the carriage and ride through the square or past the cemetery or out to the mill at Three Forks. That is probably thanks in part to Huntsville, too. The antebellum historic district is beautifully preserved today. Wandering today’s Huntsville, you can find pieces of that world from 150 years ago still intact.
In your author’s note, you point out the “strange paradox of Reconstruction in the South.” Why do you think the “Old South” was romanticized in popular culture for so many years? What do you think the consequences of the romantic “Old South” perception have been? What do you think is the most important lesson that readers can learn about the realities of Reconstruction?
In both North and South, the death and sacrifice of the Civil War, the most passionate and bloody event most Americans have ever seen (then or now), were seared into our national memory. For white Southerners, understanding the defeat and devastation became a major focus of those who wrote about the war. Some historians have suggested that there was no truly unified “South” until after Appomattox. The “romanticization” of the “Old South” and the war was an act of memory and a political statement. After Reconstruction, that statement was clearly, “Things were better before the war.” In a country that would take another century before guaranteeing full civil rights to all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, Southerners are not solely responsible for the creation of these myths or their lasting power. If the sentimental books about life in the South were written by Southerners, they were read by Northerners. Politically, economically, and culturally, the wounds of the Civil War were healed when white Americans agreed on a system of segregation based on race. The perpetuation of these myths in literature and even scholarly historical works were to enable the indifference of a country too comfortable with the stark inequalities of race and class. Are those inequalities completely gone? Have they shifted to different groups? Reconstruction was a monumental experiment in social change. There were violent reactions against it. But at least some of those promises have finally been fulfilled over the last fifty years.
Who was the inspiration for Eli Branson, a brave champion for equal rights with a secret past as a slave catcher?
Eli began as an archetype, the Scalawag, a native Southerner who became a Republican after the war and worked with the military and then Republican governments during Reconstruction. There were many prominent antebellum statesmen (like David C. Humphries in North Alabama) who saw cooperation and reconciliation as their duty after the war. Many of these men were defamed in the press and accused of all sorts of corruption and political venality after Reconstruction. That is how the reader initially understands Eli—through the stereotypes and gossip put forward by Judge as well as Augusta and her mother. But then the reader begins to see Eli through the eyes of Emma, Simon, and other African-Americans in Albion. Eventually, the reader learns of Eli’s past as a slave dealer, adding another contradictory layer to his character. A real-life Southerner who was a slave dealer was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famed cavalry officer who some still see as a Confederate hero. His primary business before the war was trading slaves. He was someone who did not see the humanity of the people he held in bondage. He is reputed to have committed some of the worst atrocities against African-Americans during the Civil War and he participated in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. He never did see the basic humanity of people beyond race, but what if an opportunist like Eli did? Who would he become? Someone who remained an opportunist, perhaps, and who would not shrink from finding the means for personal gain. But someone, too, who saw the humanity of his right-hand man, Simon, and after a horrible and traumatic loss of life, might feel that he also could be something more than an exploiter.
What was it like to write The Rebel Wife from a female point of view? Was there a particular reason you chose this perspective? What were the challenges imagining the perspective of a young widow?
The Southern woman is an archetype, too, like Eli the Scalawag or Judge the Unreconstructed Confederate. This archetype has existed since before the end of the Civil War (see Augusta Jane Evan’s Macaria). Since then there has been no lack of fictional Southern heroines; but, my main inspiration came from the many women of the South who told the stories of their lives during and after the war in their own words. These voices served as a source for Augusta. She was never a question or a plot point to be worked out. She was there from the start, the core of the story. Throughout the writing of the book, I would return to Mary Chesnut’s diary edited by C. Vann Woodward, randomly open up the book, and begin reading her words, listening for her voice, a turn of phrase or an anecdote that might reveal something deeper about her experience. In the same way, I would go to a collection of letters called Cease Not to Think of Me. The letters are between members of the Steele and Fearn families, two prominent Huntsville families related by marriage. Kate Fearn Steele, in particular, had a voice and a way of writing her letters, frank and beautiful, that helped me access Augusta’s voice. I would turn to her letters in the same way I would turn to Mary Chesnut.
The heat of the South practically rises off the pages of The Rebel Wife! How did you manage to re-create an oppressive climate in every chapter?
During a period of extreme heat in New England last summer, I was telling a friend that when I was growing up in the South, everything was air-conditioned. It could be 99 degrees outside, but you would go from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned job or store. It was not until I moved to the Northeast, where air conditioning is far from ubiquitous, that I really felt summer heat and learned how to deal with it. Those experiences of managing heat played a big role in thinking how a person in 1875 would have responded to a heat wave. For one thing, you had no alternative to the heat, you just had to get through it. Larger houses with thicker walls and higher ceilings might be somewhat cooler, but the heat would always be there, like a throb that you can’t quite forget. At one point in the book, Augusta feels that heat radiating out of the bricks late at night. That moment in particular was from a west-facing apartment I had in New York City during a brutally hot summer with no a/c. The bricks truly did put out heat.
Much of The Rebel Wife takes place in flashback, as Gus recalls Albion’s prewar years and the horrors of the Civil War. How did you keep track of the complicated timeline of your plot? Why did you choose to use flashbacks, as opposed to telling the story linearly?
I wanted this story to occur over a compact timeline, only a few weeks. This helped to keep the story moving. Also, Augusta tells the story as it happens, so there is an additional layer of immediacy. As Augusta observes the world around her, as she moves through it, specific objects or moments trigger her memory, and she returns to the past, remembering through her fear or anger or greed or regret what things were like “before.” Having her present-tense narrative enhanced by memories directly related to the current events enabled a lot of the moodiness and equivocation that she feels, but there was a lot of complexity with finding the events that told the story, that kept it moving forward. I kept a spreadsheet with all the pieces of the action listed in detail, chapter by chapter, and I included a column with the dates when the events happened. That way, I could sort the spreadsheet by date or by chapter and verify that both the actual historical timing of the story and the internal timing of the novel worked in sync. Editing and re-reading, however, were the critical factors in making the novel move smoothly and quickly toward its climax.
In your acknowledgments, you thank Norris Church Mailer for reading an early draft of the book, including “two different endings.” Can you tell us a little about the alternate ending that you decided not to use?
Norris Church Mailer was so generous with her time and care in reading my book. Her view of the story and in particular those two endings were brutally honest—and that was the best thing for me. Her view, fortunately, clicked with a few other very trusted readers whom I mention in my acknowledgments. So, as far as those endings go, they probably deserve to remain in the dustbin where they have been consigned. But I will say they were much darker (can you imagine?). What my great advisors on this project counseled (including Norris Mailer) was to provide for an element of hope and strength at the end. Augusta has achieved a sense of certainty and confidence in herself, as have Simon and Emma. They know that the battle goes on, but they can hold on for the change in the future.
While writing this book, you were a resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts, far away from the American South. Is there anywhere in Provincetown you visited for inspiration while writing Gus’s story?
My main inspiration came from books and period documents, like Godey’s Lady’s Books or Peterson’s Illustrated, or reading the Huntsville newspapers from the period or the letters and diaries kept by people from that time. However, there was a place in Provincetown that was like a wonderful refuge where I got so much work done: the beautiful 1860 Center Methodist Church that overlooks the harbor and now serves as the Provincetown Public Library. What a beautiful building! And what great work spaces on a mezzanine with a window overlooking the harbor and lighthouses and Cape Cod Bay beyond. Watching the horizon line could almost put you in a trance and suddenly it was 1875!
What can your readers look forward to next? Will you continue to write historical fiction, or do you have other plans?
I love history. I always have. I am interested in so many different periods and people, from ancient Greece and Rome to Renaissance France and England. Of course, for years I have studied American history with an emphasis on the South. Albion is a place that I will definitely visit again. But I also have the urge to visit many other places and look forward to seeing what stories and characters evolve from them. One thing I know for certain is that history will be part of the stories I write, whether in a historical setting or as a reference point for understanding the modern world. I promise to keep you posted as the stories develop!