New author? NEW AUTHOR!
How did I find a new writer in amongst all the dross? I clicked “African-American” on the Amazon historical romance sidebar and abandoned Victorian England for nineteenth century North America. HELLO, BEVERLY JENKINS! She’s a great writer and justifiably highly rated on Amazon and Goodreads. I read three of her books in four days and I’ll get to the other two, but first I want to talk about Indigo, her highest-rated book. It is really good. Definitely a “recommend” and possibly a classic.
Northern Michigan, 1859. Born a slave and now a free woman, Hester Wyatt is a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. As the book begins, she and her fellow conductors are helping a family that has just arrived from the South. The family will move on quickly to Canada, barely stopping to rest and replenish themselves, but their guide was seriously injured during the flight. Severely beaten, the man, known as “the Black Daniel”, cannot possibly be moved. He remains in a secret room in Hester’s basement to be cared for, even as he suspects that someone in Hester’s circle has betrayed him, and more importantly, their work.
Hester nurses the Black Daniel, Galen Vachon, back to health. Initially very difficult to deal with, he relaxes as he heals and they form a tenuous bond before he returns to his work. They each try to forget the other, but when Galen returns in the spring, it is with very serious intentions towards Hester. Objecting to the differences in their stations, Hester holds out against his charm offensive for as long as she can, but ultimately surrenders. Because of the setting, their happily ever after is vulnerable and the reader knows it will be challenged as the American Civil War begins.
Almost any other historical romance written in 1998 would feel dated. Indigo does not (mostly) and I think that is owed to both Jenkins skill as a writer and the seamless way she weaves genuine historical detail into the story. Every once in a while, there is a history lesson/succinct summary of what the reader needs to know about the political and cultural climate at the time. The fraught situation creates a sense of jeopardy that no other romance has ever possessed for me. Normally, I view the “historical” part of the romance as something that creates narrative distance: It’s another world and the clothing is pretty. Indigo is a love story in which the historical context is truly essential. The characters are not real, but the bravery and boldness required in their situation calls out to all of the people who fought against the injustice of a repugnant society.
Night Hawk (also a recommend) and Always and Forever reviews after the jump…
Night Hawk is set in Kansas and Wyoming in the 1870s. The Civil War is over and The Reconstruction is still in force. Jim Crow has not yet reared its ugly head, but endemic racism is always an issue.
Indigo’s Hester was dignified and humble, Night Hawk’s Maggie is a force of nature, bloodied but unbowed. After losing her beloved parents, Maggie has managed to scrape by, occasionally finding sanctuary, but often falling prey to unscrupulous people, and also to her own temper. Her latest mess is the accidental death of her boss while she was fighting off his sexual assault. She is of mixed race and poor which is enough to condemn her in the eyes of the dead man’s father and the community. The local lawman attempts to transport her to another town to await her reprieve in peace, but things go horribly awry and she is passed off to a US Marshall, Ian Vance, “The Preacher”. The book is largely a road trip undertaken by the two as Maggie tries to escape and Vance keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to find another person to deliver Maggie to for safekeeping so he can go home to his ranch.
Night Hawk was the first Beverly Jenkins books that I read. It’s clever and well-paced, not to mention laugh out loud funny. One thing I particularly enjoyed about all three of these books is that the couples married a. after much persistence from a scrumptious man who knows a good thing when he sees it and b. in the middle of the story, so that the balance of the book takes on a “you and me against the world” tone. If romance novels are about finding the right partner, it makes sense for that partnership to be used and tested. All men in romance novels are delicious: gorgeous, strong, and sometimes heroic, but in these books they are truly heroes, not just for plotting purposes, but in the context of their times. For the equally heroic women, Jenkins acknowledges something that I often think of with stories set in the past. In our world, beauty can be a gift and a ticket to a better life. For women living in a time when women, especially those of colour, had no power, beauty could be a liability. It certainly was for Maggie.
Always and Forever (SPOILERS)
It’s 1884 and the Civil War is long over, but the dismantling of the Reconstruction and the insidious expansion of Jim Crow laws has created an exodus of African-Americans to the plains and the West. Grace Atwood is contacted by her cousin and told that the men in his community in Kansas need wives. Grace, who owns and runs a bank in Chicago, has just been left at the altar and takes up the project to distract herself. She decides that despite the potential ease of train travel, the risk for mistreatment (being forced to ride in the livestock cars or summarily dumped beside the tracks) at the hands of Jim Crow means a wagon train is the most logical choice. She finds 35 women to join her and sets up the trip, but she needs a wagon master…
Enter Jackson Blake. A former (Jim Crow again) deputy US Marshall, he wants to get back to Texas to clear his name and to lay his ghosts to rest. He hires on with Grace as a way to get there. The book makes it clear that home/Texas is not only not a safe place for him to be, it is not a safe place for ANYONE of colour to be. It is a time of devastating violence and he should not be going back. Jackson’s internal battle between his need to make things right and common sense is one of the central conflicts in the story.
Despite Indigo’s pre-Civil War setting, Always and Forever was actually the most graphic and disturbing in terms of giving witness to the burden and potential horror for people of colour at the time. Indigo reports the experiences of many people, Always and Forever shows us: The hero is actually drawn (as in “hanged, drawn and quartered”) in preparation for lynching what is left of him. It was heartbreaking and extremely difficult to read.
I found the preparation for the wagon train fascinating. Not just organization and purchase of supplies, but the actual training, practice and extensive coordination the women undertake to get ready. That said, the plotting of this book was actually the weakest of the three. Grace and Jackson consummate their relationship and he decides that it was so amazing she must have been impregnated and therefore they must absolutely, positively get married rightright away. This results in a little more Come here! Go away! than was necessary.
Beverly Jenkins is a very good writer and I am so pleased to have discovered her. Despite the realities of the characters lives, I would not describe the books as dark, but rather as possessing a verisimilitude uncommon in my romance reading experience. There are trauma survivors and victims strewn throughout the genre. In these three novels, the difference is that the characters are at risk of being victimized again. The history lesson interjections are interesting even when they slow things down a bit, and I loved the feeling that Jenkins just really wanted you to know more about the remarkable real people living and working at the time. To her back catalogue!