Lyddie Berry is a 39-year-old woman living in Satucket (now Brewster) on Cape Cod in 1761. When her husband dies in an accident, she’s expected to hand over control of her life to her recently-acquired son-in-law, as her closest male relative.... but when she realizes she’s not ready to sign over her right to her house, conflict ensues. Lyddie finds that nonconformity suits her, but without family support, suddenly has to find her own way in a difficult world.
The best thing about this book is that it deals with the oppression of women head-on. So many historical novels dealing with gender inequality feature a protagonist who’s mistreated by some of the men in her life, only to “solve” the problem by finding a man who loves her and treats her like an equal. I sympathize with those authors’ desire to produce a happy ending, but such a solution obscures the problem, which wasn’t caused just by individual sexist men but by a system that denied women fundamental rights. Lyddie sums it up nicely when as she wonders whether a potential husband would use her property against her: she finally comes to “the heart of the trouble: whether he would or no, he could. He could, by law, do whatever he chose with the house once she signed the paper, as he could do with her the minute he married her.”
From that quote, it’s clear that this isn’t a conventional book; rather than marrying Lyddie off and sweeping the systemic problems under the rug of her husband’s egalitarian beliefs, Gunning gives us an honest depiction of a woman’s struggle to make her own way within the limitations of the time period. Now that’s something I can respect.
But one need not be an ardent feminist to enjoy this book: the plot is engaging on its own merits, and Lyddie’s determination makes her an easy character to root for. The writing style, while unadorned, is quite competent, and the dialogue manages to move quickly without feeling too modern. The historical detail is evidently well-researched (although if you really want a strong sense of place and immersive detail, Caleb’s Crossing by Brooks is a better choice). The descriptions of all the work that went into sustaining pre-modern life are appropriately exhausting. And one thing Gunning does especially well is avoiding black-and-white characterizations: the sexist son-in-law, while infuriating, is not without good qualities, while Lyddie’s past and present love interests--and Lyddie herself--all have their flaws.
My main beef with this book is that we learn remarkably little about Lyddie beyond her actions and thoughts in the immediate storyline. What was her childhood like? How did it happen that her only blood relative is her daughter? What ever happened to that brother who’s mentioned in passing? She’s lived in Satucket all her life, so why doesn’t she have any friends there? Why isn’t she friendly with any of her neighbors? Lyddie is an extraordinarily solitary person, almost misanthropic, whose only real relationship at the beginning of the book seems to be with her husband: has she been this way all her life, or was it caused, as her estrangement from her daughter was apparently caused, by her losing four young children? None of these questions are answered, which is frustrating.
Ultimately, The Widow’s War is a good book, standing out primarily due to its uncompromising look at gender issues in colonial America. It’s worth a few hours of your time, and if you like it, the sequels are decent as well (Lyddie comes back as a secondary character, so if you don’t like the ending here, there is more! The themes are less overt in the sequels though). I recommend it.