Second Mrs. Hockaday (Rivers)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday 
Susan Rivers, 2017
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781616205812

All I had known for certain when I came around the hen house that first evening in July and saw my husband trudging into the yard after lifetimes spent away from us, a borrowed bag in his hand and the shadow of grief on his face, was that he had to be protected at all costs from knowing what had happened in his absence. I did not believe he could survive it.

When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride Placidia is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son.

A mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, Placida must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?

Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed.

A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how that generation—and the next—began to see their world anew. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Raised—Shingle Springs, California, USA
Education—M.F.A., Queens College (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Awards—for playwrighting (see below)
Currently—lives in Blacksburg, South Carolina

Susan Rivers is an American playwright and, most recently, author of the Civil War era crime novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday (2016). Rivers was raised in Shingle Springs, California, outside of Sacramento.

It was a high school librarian who first piqued Rivers' interest in southern culture and southern women in particular. Southern women, said the librarian, were schizophrenic—sugary sweet and soft on the outside but tough as a bear on the inside. River's English teachers further opened her eyes to the pleasures of literature, the way storytelling explores ordinary people, in their approach life and love and ideas. And so, as Rivers says in her website, she came to love language: "Language is my life."

Rivers started off as a playwright. At the age of 24, she wrote her first play, Maude Gonne Says No the the Poet, based on the British actress who had enthralled 19th-century poet W.B. Yeats. When it was performed in San Francisco, Rivers' play jump-started what came to be a fairly successful career in the theater.

Working as a National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence in San Francisco, Rivers received the Julie Harris Playwriting Award and the New York Drama League Award. She was named a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award for British and American Women Playwrights. She is also a veteran of the Playwrights Festival at Sundance Institute for the Arts and the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference. She has crossed the country working on productions and workshops of my plays.

Rivers married a stage actor and director. As she tells it, however, after witnessing the divorces and split families of so many of her colleagues, she realized life in the theater might not lead to a healthy marriage or family life. After talking with her husband, the two quit the theater and eventually, with their seven-year-old daughter in tow, decided to move. They ended up clear across the country, in North Carolina, where her husband took a corporate job and Susan wrote nonfiction and short stories. That was 20-some years ago.

Since then, the family has moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Rivers got her M.F.A., and then to a small town in South Carolina, where they live now. With their daughter grown, she and her husband collect stray animals (none, she says, are turned away).

Rivers also teaches English at a university in the upstate region of South Carolina, a job she says that allows her "daily interactions with bright young men and women crafting their own relationships with language." (Adapted from the author's website and from Greensboro News & Record.)

Book Reviews
Based on true events...[and told] old through gripping, suspenseful letters, court documents, and diary entries, Rivers’s story spans three decades to show the rippling effects of buried secrets.
Publishers Weekly

[I]nitially slow paced, [it] accelerates as the story evolves and the protagonists' roles in the scandal unfold. Most of the story line is set against the stark realities of wartime survival....[and] as with all wartime tales, brutality toward women and slaves occurs with depressing frequency .—Tina Panik, Avon Free P.L., CT
Library Journal

(Starred review.) With language evocative of the South ('craggy as a shagbark stump') and taut, almost unbearable suspense, dramatized by characters readers will swear they know, this galvanizing historical portrait of courage, determination, and abiding love mesmerizes and shocks.

Rivers is adept at doling out information in teaspoon-sized increments, which makes the book hard to put down.... A compulsively readable work that takes on the legacy of slavery in the United States, the struggles specific to women, and the possibilities for empathy and forgiveness.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, consider using our LitLovers talking points for The Second Mrs. Hockaday...then take off on your own:

1. The Second Mrs. Hockaday is told through letters and diary entries. Did you find this method of storytelling engaging or confusing or off-putting? Is the format sufficient in fleshing out the characters...or does it lead to rather sketchy or thin character development? What about the change in time frames between later generations?

2. What do we learn of Placidia and Millie through their correspondence. What do their letters reveal about themselves, personally, and especially about southern life for women during the Civil War? What do you think of Placidia? Do you sense a touch of Scarlett O'Hara in her...or not?

3. Why is Placidia so evasive in response to Millie's questions?

4. What role does Achilles Fincher Hockaday play? His nine-page letter doesn't make an appearance until Part 2 and readers have no clue as to who he is. Were you confused?

5. What do you think of Major Hockaday? One reviewer described him as Bronte-esque, i.e., Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff, perhaps. Do you see any resemblance?

6. Mystery stories ratchet up suspense by withholding information, releasing it bit by bit—until the big revelation at the end. Does Susan Rivers keep you in the dark? Is this story a page-turner? Were you surprised when you got to the end? Or had you figured out what happened beforehand?

7. Talk about the outfall of the buried secret on fututre generations. How do Placidia's offsprings come to grips with the damage left in the wake of the scandal—and the war?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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