The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning


My, women’s rights have changed over the years. Have tempers and genders changed with them? Not much, according to Sally Gunning’s book.

Our protagonist, Lyddie, is married to a Cape Cod whaler, Edward Berry, and, like many “grass widows”, is quite used to being left to manage on her own for days, weeks or months at a time while Edward is away at sea. His death, while heartbreaking from an emotional standpoint, seems to her to be little more than a permanent version of what she’s been doing already for a great deal of her marriage: managing her house and home without the aid of a man. However, as a woman in 1761, she has no property rights whatsoever; as a young woman, everything would have belonged to her father, as a wife, everything was legally her husband save what she brought into the marriage herself, and now that her husband is dead, all goes to her son-in-law save the ‘relict’s third’ which her husband left her in his will.

The legal, familial and community assumption is that Lyddie will move in with her daughter and son-in-law, Nathan Crewe, attempting to maintain a separate household within their pre-existing and already cramped household. To fund this endeavor, Crewe plans to sell the house in which Lyddie has lived for the past 25 years, along with all its furnishings and household goods, retaining the proceeds from the sale to offset the extra expenses incurred by having an additional member of his household. In addition to the indignity of having to move in with her children despite being a still strong woman in middle age, Lyddie and Nathan Crewe have never gotten along personally.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of relinquishing her autonomy and household is insupportable to Lyddie, and in short order she moves back into “her” house, despite the memories it holds of her beloved (and now deceased) husband, claiming the cow and household goods from her son-in-law’s home to which she is entitled. Life on her own is startlingly impoverished, as there are few ways a woman could support herself alone at that time, even if she had the full support of her community…and Lyddie has been all but ostracized as a result of her squabble with the respected Nathan Clarke and her friendship with her Native American neighbor, Sam Cowett. Without marketable skills or the esteem of her community, it seems that the only way she may stay in her home is to remarry, but even that means relinquishing her hardwon independence from familial obligations.

I’m left with a few questions. It strikes me that much of Lyddie’s lesser property–livestock, fleece, preserves, any seeds she may have saved over from the previous winter–vanished like a soap bubble. While I understand that much of her initial problems stemmed from the fact that she had spent several months with her daughter, and therefore had missed the opportunity to start that year’s garden, and begin collecting wood to age for the next winter’s woodpile, it strikes me that she’s left with very little in the way of short-term resources. Did Lyddie have no ready cash prior to moving in with her daughter and son-in-law? How did she manage for cash when her husband was at sea for weeks at a time?

Overall, I’d call this a well written introduction to life of the late eighteenth century in what was about to become the United States, for those who’ve not read much about the period since leaving high school. The dialogue is decently written, without resorting to transliterated dialect. The American Indian character is noticeably different from the Caucasian characters without being reduced to a pitiable savage. The son-in-law and daughter provide an interesting example of blended families and remarriage; divorce was not a viable option but the number of people who died young, whether in childbirth or as a result of hazardous jobs, meant that families in the Clarke’s situation were not all that uncommon. Lyddie is a grand heroine, determined to retain her independence in the face of everything she’s known; it’s lovely to read of a heroine with the gumption to choose pride over approval. Unfortunately, it wasn’t evocative enough of that specific time period as other books I’ve read, whether The Witch of Blackbird Pond or Outlander, leaving me with the uncomfortable suspicion that it might have been set anywhere in a two hundred year timespan, between colonization of the Americas by the British and the ending of the whaling hunts via sailing ship.

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