Heat Factor: 1 story kisses only, 2 stories low heat, 1 story moderate heat
Character Chemistry: Ranges from “You guys still have some stuff to work out” to “Soulmates, obviously.”
Plot: Thematically cohesive. Plus, I learned some history, which is always a bonus!
Overall: Uneven, particularly in tone
I have yet to find an anthology that isn’t uneven in some way, and Daughters of a Nation is no exception. In this case, since the stories are organized around the themes of race, gender, and suffrage, the unevenness stems primarily from differences in tone and in how each novella worked as a romance. I will say that regardless of how successful the stories were as romances, the historical element of each was quite strong. For review purposes, I’ve written a mini-review of each story as a stand-alone romance, and then I’ll close by discussing some of the cross-cutting thematic elements that run through the work as a whole.
If you don’t want all the details, here’s my recommendation: despite its unevenness, I would say that this anthology is worth a read, especially if you’re interested in exploring diverse historical romances.
“In the Morning Sun” by Lena Hart
My main takeaway after reading “In the Morning Sun” was honestly: this story needs some content warnings. As a general rule I am ambivalent about content warnings, since I think reading outside one’s comfort zone is important, but this case is sort of extreme.
Here are things that happen on the page as the story progresses:
- Heroine is raped
- Hero kills his best friend in self-defense when said best friend suffers a psychotic break
- Virulent racism, particularly notable on the part of law enforcement
Here are things that happen off stage, but which the characters discuss:
- Heroine had an abortion
- Hero was in a POW camp, where conditions were extreme enough that he lost his eye
- Secondary character beaten so badly she ends up in the hospital
The main action takes place in 1868, and our heroine, Madeline is teaching the freedmen of Nebraska to read, in part so that they know their rights and are able to vote in the upcoming election. So the rawness of the Civil War is still very real, and it makes sense that both Madeline and James would have suffered trauma in the past few years. This is therefore a second chance romance where our protagonists are reunited by chance, and they still truly love and care for each other (Madeline thought James was dead, and then James couldn’t find Madeline once he recovered from his time as a POW), but they are also both suffering from PTSD. And also trying to do the right thing politically, while also navigating the difficulty of being a mixed-race couple in a time and place with stringent anti-miscegenation laws.
All of which is to say: it’s a lot for a novella, and would probably have worked better as a longer piece, so that Hart could have developed some of the issues she discusses in greater detail, while also leaving space for the romance to bloom again more slowly.
“The Washerwomen’s War” by Piper Huguley
Huguley’s story is fun mainly because of the narrator – Mamie, our heroine, tells the entire story in the first person, and she is smart and sassy and her distinctive voice really comes through.
However, the romantic conflict between Mamie and Gabe is the weak link here. Basically, Mamie has declared that she won’t be a minister’s wife (reasons unclear, but maybe because she’s outspoken and therefore thinks she won’t make a good one?), and Gabe is a minister. But… maybe a bigger pitfall is the fact that Mamie ardently supports women’s right to vote, and Gabe thinks that “Women need guidance and counsel. They aren’t prepared to make that kind of decision without assistance.” And while Gabe’s calling as a minister is addressed, because that’s what Mamie seems to be caught up on, his comments on the fact that women by definition need guidance never are. The balance of their conflict seems to be about their differing views on how best to help change the lot of poor Black women in Atlanta, but they are ultimately on the same side in encouraging the washerwomen to strike for better wages, even though they disagree over one small, specific tactic. Overall, I didn’t really buy the conflict between them, which meant that the reconciliation and path to love fell a bit flat.
“A Radiant Soul” by Kianna Alexander
Of the four stories, “A Radiant Soul” is the most tightly focused. The action takes place over a short period of time, and while there is some political conflict (mainly, the differing views the protagonists have about whether activists should work to ensure that suffrage is protected for Black men or expanded to women), it feels much less immediate than in the other stories. Rather, this story focuses in on the meeting and initial courtship between Sarah and Owen in the lead-up to Sarah’s mother’s birthday party.
Overall, it’s a nice little romance, though I did feel that Sarah’s characterization was a bit uneven – I couldn’t tell if she was supposed to be feisty and independent, or demure and docile, because she was both, but not in a way that made her well-rounded. Instead, her behavior in different scenes seemed contradictory.
“Let Us Dream” by Alyssa Cole
The strongest story, in my opinion. Bertha and Amir have killer chemistry, and their relationship builds believably as they slowly break down the protective barriers each has erected as a marginalized member of society (former prostitute who wears her Boss persona like armor / immigrant who not only doesn’t have papers, but cannot legally get them because of his country of origin – because race was used as a basis for naturalization, foreign born Asian immigrants could not become US citizens until 1952). In addition, the politics of the story is intrinsic to the characters. Of course Bertha, as someone who has fought hard to no longer be under the control of men, would advocate for women’s suffrage. And of course Amir, as a marginalized worker himself, would be a socialist who is eager to learn the ins and outs of the local political system.
Besides the chemistry between the characters, the other thing that Cole does particularly well in “Let Us Dream” is build a sense of place. I usually think about world-building in terms of science-fiction and fantasy stories, rather than historical ones, but in this case, Cole’s use of detail really brought 1917 Harlem to life. The contrast with the other stories – all of which take place during Reconstruction – may have heightened how fresh the setting felt.
Still with me? Let’s talk cross-cutting themes.
By “intersectionality,” I mean the interconnected nature of social categories, such as race, class, and gender. Each story grapples with intersectional identities in interesting ways, making intersectionality the strongest element of the anthology as a whole. Since all of the stories are about Black suffragettes, they all grapple with race and gender – a common source of conflict between characters reflects the different experiences of Black men and women. However, the stories also address identities related to education and class. Huguley’s story, for example, foregrounds the difference in experience between illiterate working-class women and their college-educated middle-class counterparts; a central plot component of the story centers on the heroine’s interactions with the washerwomen of Atlanta.
When I say “respectability politics”, I am referring to the idea that members of marginalized groups police themselves and others to show that their values are in line with those of the dominant culture. In other words, let’s show a “respectable” front.
The question of respectability plays out most overtly in Cole’s story. Bertha is a former prostitute, and currently runs a nightclub / brothel; as such, much of her character’s struggle stems specifically from her desire to establish herself as a woman to be respected. The opening scene of the story shows her getting done up so she looks the part and going to a women’s suffrage meeting – she wants to look like she fits in. Her goal is to talk to the women about the marginalized women in the city – not what these respectable suffragettes women can do to “uplift” the poor, but how the prostitutes might be able to help with the campaign to get women the vote. (It doesn’t go well, but that doesn’t stop Bertha from striving.)
The other three stories in the collection play the respectability game in a more subtle way. The authors all clearly establish their heroines as traditionally respectable, middle-class women. Hart and Huguley write about teachers. At the outset, it seems like Alexander’s heroine is a non-conforming rebel, but even though she works for women’s suffrage, she is, at heart, a well-bred young lady who feels a great amount of shame for letting the hero touch her boobs. She is a good girl from a good family who would NEVER do things like that if it weren’t real love (and even though it is real love, needs the hero to validate that she is still a good girl before she gets over her embarrassment).
The result of this positioning is that it felt like that authors were playing respectability politics a little bit here – they are purposely combating stereotypes about Black women as earthy, seductive, uneducated Jezebels (a stereotype especially notable in 19th century portrayals of Black women).
Look, you guys. Race is a social construct. (That doesn’t mean it’s not real. Just that we, as a society, have decided that it is real.) And both Hart and Cole play around with the idea that race is constructed in really interesting ways. While this doesn’t cut across all of the stories, it was notable enough that I wanted to bring it up.
The primary factor standing in the way of a HEA for the protagonists in Hart’s story are the anti-miscegenation laws on the books; Madeline and James can’t stay and do the work they want to do in Nebraska and also be a couple. The solution: James publicly outs himself as having a great-grandmother who was a slave. James therefore becomes “colored”; though his physical and genetic make-up don’t change, his social status decidedly does.
In Cole’s story, the racial ambiguity moves in the other direction – when Bertha was young, she and her father passed as South Asian. Her father once wore a turban to a restaurant, and was not only served food (which he would not have been as a Black man), but was treated well, as an exotic guest from afar. This was a life-changing experience for him, and again highlights the slippery nature of race and the way it’s tied to social status in complex ways.
Sorry, monster review. The reason I wanted to highlight some of the cross-cutting themes was to show the ways in which the anthology is more than just a sum of its parts. While the stories are not always successful as stand-alone romances, when read it tandem they are pretty thought-provoking.
Buy Now: Amazon
Three of the four novellas are also available for purchase individually:
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