Nothing Left to Lose
THE WIDOW'S WAR
By Sally Gunning
Morrow. 305 pp. $24.95
With all the recent talk about the illicit use of fiction in nonfiction, little has been said about the reverse: the occasional necessity or desire to report real events in a novel. History may provide the underpinning upon which a novel is based, or fiction may underscore an important character or event in a given era. Sally Gunning, in The Widow's War , seamlessly does both. Skillfully employing the language, imagination and character that literary fiction demands, she illuminates a fascinating moment in our past: the years just prior to the War of Independence, when ideas of rebellion -- for men and women -- were fomenting.
Lyddie Berry becomes a widow on the day her husband responds to a cry of "Blackfish in the bay!" The view from the Berry house in Satucket Village (now Brewster on Cape Cod, Mass.) is all black whales, hundreds of them, being herded to shore. With hardly a backward glance, Lyddie's husband, Edward, runs down to the beach, never to return: His boat capsizes, and though the other four whalers aboard are saved, Berry is drowned.
Before the day is over, Lyddie, no stranger to tragedy (she has already lost four of her five children), will be ousted from her house as is required by law and ensconced in the home of her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, a man more interested in property than in women. Little time or language is wasted on grief. Sam Cowett, an Indian who lives as an Englishman and was the last to see Edward Berry alive, comes to pay his respects to the widow:
"About your husband."
" . . . Yes."
"I had him. A good grip. He was alive. I felt him take hold."
"Yes. All right."
"The coat tore."
"All right. Yes."
Lyddie lives a life as austere as her speech. When removed from her house to reside with her daughter and husband, she is allowed to take only those precious few possessions she brought with her to the marriage. Clarke, as her nearest male relative, will receive title to all of the Berry property, while Lyddie, "as Edward's relict," is entitled to the "standard 'widow's third' " -- "a third of either the physical property itself or a third the interest resulting from its sale."
Nathan, of course, wants to sell the property as soon as possible for the money. But Lyddie elects to return to and occupy her third of the house, setting up her own separate fire in the east corner of the keeping-room hearth, putting a bed in the southeast chamber and taking charge of the pantry. Clarke and the men around him are appalled. When Lyddie wonders why her husband didn't leave her more independent, his lawyer asks sarcastically if she would rather have been left alone. "How many months in the year was I alone?" she replies. "In spring my husband sailed for Carolina and in summer for Canada, in fall he went to Boston for weeks at a time. . . . Do you think I don't know how to be a woman alone?"
Lyddie's act of rebellion may have been encouraged by the news of James Otis, a radical lawyer in Barnstable. Otis had challenged the Trade Acts by speaking out on behalf of the fundamental rights of man (and woman) -- principles, we are told in an afterword, on which future revolutionary activity was grounded. (John Adams later wrote, "Then and there the child Independence was born.") Lyddie's first bid for freedom inevitably leads to others. The widow not only refuses to attend church on the Sabbath, but she also breaks another law by working on that day, trying to sell cheese to make enough money to eat in her third of a house.
Drawn to the household next door, Lyddie cares for Sam Cowett's wife, who is dying, and then attends to Cowett himself when he becomes ill. She receives pay in the form of food for these attentions and ignores the scandalized townspeople when she must occasionally spend the night in the Cowett house. Turning to Cowett for human warmth, Lyddie becomes the Indian's lover, further alienating herself from society -- and from her late husband's lawyer, who has proposed to her. Life with a wealthy, respected man is tempting, but she also knows that if she marries him, she will lose all rights to her "widow's third." The cost of her decision is high either way: "You're no mother to me or to my wife," Nathan Clarke shouts at her. "As of this day you're cut loose."
A good novelist creates layer upon layer of reality so that when the central character makes an extraordinary leap, the reader is willing to go along. A fine balance, however, between detail and art must be struck. Too much research, and the word "research" might as well be stamped across the page. Too little, and the all-important quality of verisimilitude is lost. Gunning chooses her facts and details with care, allowing the strong-willed Lyddie to command our attention. One is revolted by the stink of the "try pots" (as is Lyddie) and thoroughly chilled by the cold ("First the well froze, then the clock, next the ink, and finally the bay, in great chunks"), but the grief, struggle and courage of this ordinary woman are what finally resonate.
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's most recent novel is "A Wedding in December."