Polites has created his central character, the widow Augusta Branson, from the lives of many, a compilation of the journals, diaries and letters written by women in post-Reconstruction South. When Eli Branson leaves this world awash in his own blood, the horrified widow and former house slaves turn a blind eye to the cause of death, the funeral hastily arranged. As a woman of means, all eyes are upon Augusta, who is soon informed by a relative—attorney Judge Heppert—that he has been appointed executor of Eli’s estate even though the men were political adversaries. The estate, unfortunately, has few funds left for the widow and her son.
The avuncular Heppert expects Gus to acquiesce to his direction and trust him for her financial needs. However, Branson’s longtime slave, Simon, now a freedman, informs Gus that there may be a good deal of money to be found. Caught between the rigid code of the past and her fear of what the future holds for herself and her small son, Gus vacillates between the two, gradually giving more credence to Simon than the increasingly evasive Heppert. The country is in severe economic distress, freed slaves leaving for other parts where they won’t carry the burden of their history, the enmity between whites and black sympathizers deep and riddled with violence, marauding supremacist groups spreading terror among the former slaves.
A fish out of water, Augusta has worn her marriage uncomfortably, happy to be rid of her conjugal duty with the birth of a son and never sympathetic to Eli’s concerns: “I have waited so many days until I could call myself by that name. Widow.” Outcast from society since her marriage to Branson, her supposed wealth still offers Gus cachet and the forgiveness of her peers. But as events escalate and a plague threatens to wipe out the town, Augusta has more on her mind that mending fences with the ladies. Forced to communicate more closely with those who used to be her servants, Gus is beset with discomfort on all sides, but nothing is so important as her son’s future security.
While Polites’ post-Reconstruction everywoman isn’t very sympathetic as a character, she does evolve over time and circumstance, rising to the occasion when necessary. Bound to a marriage of financial benefit in a paternalistic society, Gus has exercised little freedom, jumping from childhood home to marriage bed: “The first night I thought I died in that bed.” Neither noble nor particularly brave, Gus is inspired by her own needs. A creature of her society, it is necessity that brings the Widow Branson to her better self—and an appreciation of the loyalty of former slaves as well as the corrosiveness of racial animus. Indeed Augusta Branson survives—thanks to Simon—and outwits her adversaries to recreate a better life, certainly in a more favorable position than the former slaves that have aided her cause and set her on the road to opportunity and independence.