Pros: Very descriptive, honest writing about a woman's plight in the new world.
Cons: Not a one. A very enjoyable read.
After reading Sally Gunning's novel, Bound, I knew I was going to be eagerly seeking her other books set in pre-Revolutionary War New England. It's not a time and place that I spend a lot of time reading about to be honest -- my historical fiction tends towards Europe -- but I had heard so many positive reviews about this author, I decided to give her work a try, and I was left very impressed.
With The Widow's War, we take several steps back from the time of Bound, and tell the story of one of the pivotal characters in the first book, the Widow Berry. At the start of the story, we return to the settlement of Satucket, on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod. Lyddie Berry, a hard working woman, is about to have her life overturned when the whales make their run in the waters off the cape.
Her husband, Edward, is one of the fishermen who hunt the whales, and during the hunt, he is lost to the sea, leaving Lyddie alone and widowed. According to the custom of the time, where a woman could not hold property of her own, Lyddie suddenly is dispossessed of her own income and home, and is forced to move into the home of her only surviving child, Mehitabel.
Instead of her own place, now Lyddie must contend with others, lack of privacy, and especially her obnoxious son-in-law, Nate Clarke. Clarke begrudges her every bite of food, every log burnt on the fire, and constantly harps at her to sell her share of what Edward left her in his will. And Lyddie, in the midst of grieving and loss, finds the strength to hold out. She doesn't quite trust her son-in-law's handling of her affairs, but doesn't quite know enough about the law either.
Enter Eben Freeman, a man who is very different than Clarke. He's much more scrupulous for one, and seems to be genuinely fond of Lyddie. Too, he seems to take a hidden delight in tweaking Clarke's greed. And while his behaviour towards Lyddie is very correct and very proper, it's pretty clear that he also cares about her as a person.
But Lyddie is too mired in her anguish, and a bit too proud and stubborn to easily bend, and even Freeman's offers of help are too much for her to take. All she wants is to be left alone in her grief and back in her own home and place. But the society of the time isn't about to let her have even that...
I was simply blown away by this strong, tight little novel about a woman's place in a time where she was considered to be not much more than a burden and an animal in terms of mental capacity and legal standing. Lyddie's story must have been a very common one in the Americas, and the struggle just to keep enough food and fuel must have been a terrible one.
Reading Lyddie's story with all of the troubles and hardship was not an easy one. But there were bright spots as well -- the birth of a grandchild, Lyddie's relationship with her neighbors, the Cowetts, and the bonds that she forms with them, despite the fact that she is white, and they are Indians, was very touching to read. Other little tidbits include the food, drink, work and history of the time, all skillfully woven in together to present a coherent, realistic whole is one of the best parts of this novel.
The story is quickly paced, believable, and while it's a very bittersweet one, full of all sorts of tragedies, it's also a very good one. Most novels that are set in this time and place tend to be on the fluffy side, and full of stereotypes, or terribly derivative, but this one held together very well. I found Lyddie and Freeman to be very real, and understandable, and filled with all of the personality and character that most historical authors forget to put into their creations.
For anyone who wants a good read, I can't recommend this author enough. Five solid stars here, and very much recommended.
Books by Sally Gunning:
The Widow's War -- you are here
The Rebellion of Jane Clarke
The Widow's War
2006; HarperCollins Publishing, Inc.