Set in early 1760s Cape Cod, The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning follows the story of Lyddie Berry after losing her husband to the sea. By modern standards, Lyddie is a young widow at 39, but the community and the law treat her as if she is a helpless, elderly woman. Lyddie has no choice but to be taken under the financial wing of her harsh and stingy son-in-law. Although Lyddie must contend with her grief, she also very much finds herself and her own voice throughout the course of the novel. Having spent much of her life under the yolk of men, Lyddie slowly but surely learns to stand on her own two feet and support herself by any means necessary, even if it brings societal shame to her.
The village buzzes with gossip when Lyddie begins working for “the Indian” Sam Cowett (more on this later…), her neighbor. Their neighborly relationship grows into friendship, despite Lyddie being warding off by any who will tell her–most notably her late husband’s lawyer and friend, Eben Freeman–who himself has an eye of Lyddie and her future care.
Gunning’s historical detail of a typical 18th century woman’s day to day tasks and chores is well researched and on point. Gunning also aptly illustrates the social norms and laws of the time by describing the vast web a man’s dominion over a woman in the 18th Century–a point that Lyddie continually struggles against. Gunning’s message of female empowerment and giving voice to the voiceless ultimately falls flat and rings false given her problematic and stereotypical portrayal of Native Sam Cowett. Yes, we are seeing him through the eyes of an 18th century white woman–but at the same time, given Lyddie’s forward thinking and her own struggle against societal norms–her thoughts on Sam just don’t match up, even at the end of the novel. Sam is built up throughout the novel and I really thought he would have a more instrumental part at the end or there would be some realization on Lyddie’s part, but no, we’re concretely left with a Native stereotype that left a bad taste in my mouth about this novel given its overall message and theme. What’s more, despite the fact that Eben Freeman continually belittles Lyddie and demonstrates power over her, Gunning ultimately makes him “the good guy,” which really didn’t make sense to me.
The Widow’s War started out promising, but really dropped the ball on portraying the same old Native stereotypes in a novel that is supposed to depict a forward-thinking woman.