Mystery and Revelation: A Review of The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
by Laurel Myers
A compelling mix of mystery, romance, and historical fiction, The Second Mrs. Hockaday is an enigmatic guide on a harrowing journey through a southern homestead enveloped by the Civil War. Characters’ voices chime in through letters, expertly and deftly answering the disturbing question at the center of Susan Rivers’ debut novel: Did Placidia murder the child she gave birth to while her husband was away fighting for two years? While this query propels the plot, explorations of gender roles, transitioning identities, and intergenerational connections develop a multi-dimensional story, emphasizing the strength and perseverance of women during war time. As each letter is delivered, the novel carefully uncovers the stunning revelation while simultaneously developing a powerful portrait of Dia that endures the passing of time.
A story set during the Civil War, gender rules the narrative. Rivers exposes and explores gender roles, showing how women, specifically Placidia, must adapt in order to survive. She is only a teenage girl when she marries Major Griffth Hockaday, who is on leave from service, and while she does not fit into the mold of a prim and proper lady, able to ride the unruly horses and not minding a little bit of dirt on her face, she is well aware of the expectations of a wife and wishes to meet them. She is caught unawares by the sudden responsibilities that come with being a wife to a widower in the army. Overnight, Dia becomes a mother to a small son and the overseer of a three-hundred-acre farm. Here, she learns to rely on the slaves who have worked the land for years while still maintaining the position as a superior. The letters exchanged between Dia and her cousin Millie capture this transition from plantation lady to hardened woman while the mystery behind the conception and death of her baby comes to the forefront.
Rivers manages to tease out details about the overarching question from Dia’s preserved voice through diary entries found after her death. Her son Achilles reads about his mother’s hardships while maintaining the farm, caring for her child, and experiencing violence caused by the effects of war. Finally, the details of the fateful night around which the novel circles are revealed. From the diary written on the back of pictures in a Dickens novel, the knowledge of Dia’s thoughts and reactions creates a sense of intimacy that does not appear in the letters. The connection between generations, between mother and son, demonstrates the shifts in perceptions that children often have; that is to say, idealization giving way to the moment in which parents become humans who make mistakes, worry, and struggle. Ultimately, the diary entries cause Achilles to dedicate himself to finding out what exactly happened to his mother during those two years of isolation.
While Dia’s character rightly dominates the novel, the inclusion of many of the secondary characters seems to be haphazard and can be somewhat confusing for readers going back and forth between letters to and from different people, official documents, and the diary entries. Though reflective of the South Carolina location and era, the supporting characters lack truly distinctive voices that would crystalize their personalities and importance, adding to the disorientation. Introducing the main conflict at the beginning creates mystery and evokes intrigue, compelling eyes to read faster and hands to turn the pages quicker, but the second part lacks enough tantalizing details about the mystery that the big picture sometimes blurs, becoming lost in the preoccupations of the son. Nevertheless, River’s novel is masterfully engaging, provoking the reader to jump to conclusions concerning the dead baby’s paternity from a detail as subtle as a glance or a kind word or any implication of tenderness. She diverts attention and seems to be suggesting one solution or another until the answer to the big question arrives as a surprise in a breathless, consuming moment.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday is not simply a Civil War narrative, a mystery, a romance, nor a coming of age novel. Just as Dia transitions between roles and identities, so do the genres. The epistolary form is the perfect structure to create a captivating amalgamation of triumph, heartbreak, and the will to endure. In and of herself, Dia is a complex character who evokes both empathy and criticism, which is a captivating combination. Rivers, a skillful raconteur, handles the entanglements of Dia’s story gracefully while delving into an important occurrence in American history.