- The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (William Morrow, 2007)
- In 40 words or less: Lyddie Berry, widowed after a whaling mishap, asserts her rights to one-third of her husband’s estate. Though legal, this decision has harsh consequences within her family and community. Gunning provides a detailed portrayal of the difficult life in mid-eighteenth century Cape Cod.
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Locale: Satucket, MA
- Time: 1760s
- Read this to see the hardships of life in colonial America and the tremendous strictures of the society.
On my recent vacation to Cape Cod and the Berkshires, I visited Eight Cousins bookshop in Falmouth. As is my custom, I asked the bookseller for suggestions on a fiction title by a local author with a local feel. Her recommendation of The Widow’s War was right on target. Sally Gunning’s love for the Cape and its history comes through from page one. What differs in this novel from many others is the focus on the legally subservient role of women in the colonies and the prejudice against Indians living among the settlers.
Lyddie Berry is a strong woman who has run a household for months at a time while her husband, Edward, was at sea. Theirs was a loving relationship despite the strains of multiple miscarriages and the deaths of all but one of their children in infancy. Mehitable, their daughter, recently married a respected widower in the community and was establishing her own household.
When whales are spotted in the bay, the ships leave in a flurry and all the men return safely except for Edward. Their neighbor and friend, Sam Cowett, an Indian, makes every effort to save him but is unsuccessful. Now the Widow Berry, Lyddie is forced to recast her life.
Edward’s will provided for Lyddie as best possible at that time. The home and all properties go to the nearest male relative, Mehitable’s husband Mr. Clarke, with Lyddie to be given life tenancy to a third of the home plus support to come from the proceeds of the legacy. Edward’s solicitor, Mr. Freeman was a fierce advocate for Lyddie’s rights which Mr. Clarke sought to subvert. To support herself, Lyddie nursed Sam Cowett’s ailing wife and served as his housekeeper for a period after her death. As an Indian, Sam was an outsider in the community and her alignment with him damages Lyddie’s reputation. Day to day survival overtakes her observance of the Sabbath which further estranges her.
The strengths of this novel are the detailed descriptions of daily life and the societal hierarchy within the community. Using the conflicts within the Berry/Clarke family as the background, the roles of wives, mothers and widows are clear. Gunning carefully portrays the shrinking of the Indian presence in the local area as the consequence of selling land for supplies. Sam Cowett remained the lone reminder of the Indian landholders and his friendship/partnership with Edward Berry a thorn in the side of the community.
Whether your interest is in colonial America, whaling in Cape Cod, feminism in early America or just a good story, The Widow’s War holds its own.