Widow's War (Gunning)

The Widow's War
Sally Gunning, 2006
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060791582

Married for twenty years to Edward Berry, Lyddie is used to the trials of being a whaler's wife in the Cape Cod village of Satucket, Massachusetts—running their house herself during her husband's long absences at sea, living with the daily uncertainty that Edward will simply not return.

When her worst fear is realized, she finds herself doubly cursed. She is overwhelmed by grief, and her property and rights are now legally in the hands of her nearest male relative: her daughter's overbearing husband, whom Lyddie cannot abide. Lyddie decides to challenge both law and custom for control of her destiny, but she soon discovers the price of her bold "war" for personal freedom to be heartbreakingly dear. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Her own words:
I came to writing at a young age, driven to it in desperation one rainy day when I ran out of books; my main influences at the time being Dr. Seuss and parents who heartily subscribing to the puritan work ethic, my first effort was a poem about making my bed. I continued to tinker with poems and snippets through Winnie-the-Pooh and my brother's Hardy Boys books, but when I hit Salinger's Catcher in the Rye I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to try to write a book. It turned out to be later—after going to college and working as a chambermaid, a stewardess on a cruise ship, a tour guide in a Revolutionary War museum, and staff of one in an old-fashioned country doctor's office.

But one day that doctor decided to do a novel thing—he decided to take a day off, and he liked it so much he decided to do it once a week. That extra day off turned into my writing day—I sealed myself in the dining room with my typewriter; I told friends and family not to call; I didn't shop, clean, do laundry mow the lawn, or go to the beach. Another kind of writer might have entered that room immediately aspiring to the heights of one her writing idols—Harper Lee or Jane Austen in my case—but Lee and Austen had already taught me my first important lesson: I didn't yet know how to write. So I walked into that room thinking Hardy Boys instead.

I thought of that first book as an exercise in novel-writing, a way to teach myself about plot, pace, and structure—in other words, as an exercise in learning how to tell a story. It never occurred to me that very first book would actually sell, or that it would result in a series of contracts that kept me writing mystery novels for the next ten years of my life. But ten years later I found myself asking, wasn't there another kind of story I needed to tell?

I'm often asked where the switch from mystery to historical fiction came from; although there's the usual long answer to the question, the short answer is that it came out of the ground. My husband Tom and I live in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, a place my ancestors had discovered for us about three hundred years before we rode into town. Every day we walk over ancient Indian paths and colonial roads past houses that were built when my ancestors first arrived; we can look out our window at an ocean that cost more than one ancestor his life; we've lived through storms that have left us without heat, light, water, and gasoline for as long as five days, plunging us, however briefly, into the kind of life those ancestors lived.

Living so physically and psychically close to the past inevitably led me to want to know more about it; I began to read every book on Cape Cod history I could find, and bit by bit the Cape's past began to make its way into my novels. That was a start, but it wasn't enough; from own family's history I knew there were stories out there that hadn't yet surfaced. I began to dig out old wills, deeds, diaries, town records, business accounts. I found that the same mix of large-hearted, small-minded, lustful, self-righteous humanity filled the past as filled the present, and when I found Lyddie Berry I knew I'd found the story I needed to tell. The Widow's War was that story. And out of an eighteenth century diary I discovered while writing The Widow's War I found Alice Cole, the indentured servant whose story gave birth to my next novel, Bound. I have no doubt that my next story is back there somewhere in the past, waiting for its chance to connect with the present. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Many historical novels die on the page, the characters never having drawn breath. In Gunning's capable hands, a novel of history is allowed to be as vivid as the smell of a man: "Tobacco and sweat, but a different sweat, and something like sassafras but not sassafras."
Anita Shreve - Washington Post

Heartrending ... Gunning's vibrant portrayal of Lyddie's journey shows that the pursuit of happiness is not for the faint of heart.
Boston Globe

Mystery author Gunning moves to literary historical with this provocative tale of a whaling widow determined to forge a new life in colonial Cape Cod. When Lyddie Berry's husband drowns in 1761, her grief is compounded by the discovery that he's willed her the traditional widow's share-one-third use, but not ownership, of his estate. Lyddie's care, and the bulk of the estate, have been entrusted to their closest male relative, son-in-law Nathan Clarke, husband to their daughter Mehitable and a man used to ordering a household around. Lyddie's struggle to maintain a place in her radically changed home soon brings her into open conflict with an increasingly short-tempered Nathan and his children from two previous marriages. Gunning infuses the story with suspense and intrigue, as Lyddie's plight brings her into the orbit of local Indian Sam Cowett; community censure then brings her an ally in sympathetic lawyer Ebeneezer Freeman. Gunning resists easy generalizations and stereotypes while the story pulls in 18th-century law and Anglo-Indian relations, but the dull period dialogue, of which there is a great deal, reads awkwardly. Yet she makes Lyddie's struggle to remake her life credible and the world she inhabits complex.
Publishers Weekly

In 1761, Massachusetts-born attorney James Otis challenged the British government's right to impose legal writs on the American Colonies. He was also an outspoken abolitionist and supporter of women's suffrage. In her latest novel, Gunning (Fire Water) uses Otis as a catalyst for change in the life of Lyddia Berry. While most people find the lawyer's sentiments appalling, she is quietly thrilled-in fact, Otis's speeches inspire Lyddia to defy her son-in-law, a pompous businessman who assumed legal responsibility for her following the accidental death of her fisherman husband. Gunning exposes the sexism of the era-married women were denied the right to own property and were barred from signing contracts, while widows were under the thumb of male heirs and granted use of only one-third of their deceased husband's property-and juxtaposes it with the racism of the white Colonists against Native Americans. By merging historical fact with riveting fiction, she offers readers an intimate peak into the daily life of pre-Revolutionary War Satucket, MA. Along the way, they'll get a vivid sense of the race, gender, and class dynamics of America's foreparents while enjoying a wonderful story. This is historical fiction at its best; highly recommended. —Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY
Library Journal

The crisp prose is flavored with the stinging salty atmosphere of a New England community witnessing one individual's war for independence. Good choice for book clubs. —Kaite Mediatore

Gunning's quietly compelling historical novel places the limited rights of 18th-century New England married women, particularly widows, within the context of a pre-Revolutionary America in which rebellious attitudes toward English rule foment new ideas about freedom and individual rights. When her husband dies in a whaling accident, 39-year-old Cape Codder Lyddie Berry is entitled only to a widow's third of her husband's estate. She is expected to move in with her daughter Mehitable and avaricious son-in-law Nathan Clarke, who, as Lyddie's closest male relative, now controls her life. Her only ally is her husband's lawyer, widower Eben Freeman. While Nathan is a stingy, narrow-minded Puritan, Eben, whose friend James Otis's suit against Britain's Writs of Assistance is a precursor to the Revolution, is more open-minded. Unable to live with Clarke, Lyddie defies social norms and moves back into her home—or one-third of it. Clarke's plan to sell the cottage is thwarted because Lyddie's neighbor Sam Cowett, a local Indian semi-accepted by the townspeople, refuses to relinquish his timber rights to the Berry property. When Sam's wife Rebecca comes down with brain fever, a financially desperate Lyddie works as her paid nurse. Despite malicious gossip concerning her relationship with recently widowed Sam, Eben proposes marriage. A happy outcome seems possible until Lyddie finds herself unwilling to put herself at a man's mercy, even reasonable Eben's. Gunning (Dirty Water, 2004, etc.) paints the ethical, emotional and financial dilemmas of her refreshingly adult characters in surprisingly lively shades of gray.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Lyddie Berry, a woman very much of her time, ends up making a series of choices that put her at odds with the social, legal, and religious strictures of her time. What external and internal events cause this transformation? Do you think other women of this time, facing the same series of events, would have evolved in this same way? If not, what characteristics make Lyddie unique to her situation?

2. Are there other options that Lyddie ignores which might have peacefully achieved her goal of controlling her own destiny? If so, why do you think Lyddie ignores them?

3. What factors draw Lyddie Berry and Sam Cowett into their relationship? What factors cause them to back away? What parallels or contrasts do you see in the relationship between Lyddie and Eben Freeman?

4. Considering the time in which she lives, do you believe a long term relationship with Sam Cowett is a viable option for Lyddie? Does the relationship serve only as a source of physical comfort as Lyddie initially implies?

5. At one point Lyddie Berry blames Sam Cowett for alienating her from her religion. How fair is this a statement?

6. Considering the time in which he lives, do you believe Eben Freeman is forward thinking in regard to women?

7. What factors shape Lyddie's relationship with her daughter? How might they have acted to better protect the mother/daughter bond? Why don't they?

8. Sam Cowett claims that of the two Clarke brothers, Silas is the greater menace. Do you agree? Do you find any redeeming features in either brother?

9. Considering the methods of travel and communication in 1761, how do limited access and long delays affect the characters and events in this novel?

10. What is the actual significance of the Berry house in Lyddie's life? If the house had burned to the ground in the fire, do you think Lyddie would have been better able to accept living in her son-in-law's home?

11. If you were Lyddie Berry, what options would you have considered and which would you have rejected in order to make your way? Has Lyddie fully explored all her options? If not, why not?

12. Compare the political philosophies of Eben Freeman and James Otis. Who is the greater idealist? Is Lyddie an idealist or a realist?

13. If you were alive in 1761 America, how would you have responded to the ideas of James Otis? How do you imagine today's politicians would have responded to them?

14. How would you explain Lyddie's attitude toward Mercy Otis Warren and her accomplishments? How does her attitude define her times?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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