Heat Factor: It’s pretty steamy for a reasonably standard old school historical romance
Character Chemistry: Galen makes Hester feel things. He also thinks she’s arresting.
Plot: Slave catchers are roving around, looking for our protagonists, in antebellum Michigan
Overall: The work this book does is really something special
Okay, so, I was over on Goodreads, and I started skimming some of the reviews of Indigo. And let me tell you, reviews written in 2016 about a book written in 1996…
I mean. It is foundational. Are these reviewers comparing one of Beverly Jenkins’s earliest publications – an old school romance for sure – to books published in the 2010s and thinking that Jenkins is nothing original?
Okay. Moving on.
Y’all, this book is incredible. It was also written in 1996, so please hang up your expectations about woke, cinnamon roll heroes at the door. You will be getting captivated hero, magic vagina virgin sex – this book was written before the year 2000. I actually thought that Galen was a remarkably non-alpha hero considering how old the book is and how much money he has. His issues are these: he primarily doesn’t take no for an answer (there’s an unequal match situation going on), and spends ridiculous amounts of money (because of course he does, Hester is the uniquest, and he’s going to spoil her).
Let’s focus (she says to herself, not very optimistically).
Galen and Hester meet when Galen is brought to her because her house is a station on the Underground Railroad, and he had been badly beaten while conducting escaped slaves. For a chunk of each year, he disappears and becomes the “Black Daniel,” a well-known and admired conductor on the Underground Railroad. The rest of the year, he’s Galen Vachon, a very wealthy man of mulatto/Creole heritage who can pass as white as needed (please note: mulatto is a dated term). After being extra grumpy for a few days during his recuperation, Galen is captivated by Hester’s poise, strength, kindness, and courage of conviction. So of course he’s like, “Mine.”
Meanwhile, the reason that Galen was attacked in the first place is that there’s a mole in the small town where Hester lives, and that mole is leading super gross slave catchers to harass the quiet little Michigan village.
So what we’ve got is:
- Unequal match – This includes wealth and social status as well as colorism. Galen is a wealthy man from a free family who is extremely fair, while Hester is an independent but by no means wealthy former slave with very dark skin and hands and feet dyed permanently blue from her time processing indigo as a slave (i.e. there is no way to hide her past).
- Slavery – This book is set in Michigan in the 1850s, so it’s exploring all of the issues that are leading to the Civil War. Michigan is a new state, and it’s a free state, but also the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 has been passed, which basically means that slave catchers can snatch up pretty much any Black person anywhere in the US, and nobody could say “Boo.”
- Feminism – Hester Wyatt is a free Black woman who owns her own land and takes care of herself and others in her community. She’s respected and independent within that community. Yeah, Galen lavishes her with gifts and behaves all paternalistically, but she does not need him. She’s a really amazing character.
So yeah, this book does absolutely read like it was written in the 1990s. But it is also a prime example of how subversive romance can be! A free Black woman (1) who doesn’t need a man to do jack for her (2) and is actively fighting slavery every way she can (3) finds a man she likes and respects and who likes and respects her (4) and has totally awesome sex with him (5)! Hester Wyatt is da bomb. And ALSO, hi, hello, there were independently wealthy Black people living in the United States before 1964. Or 1865.
Historical romance often does some work addressing historical setting, including sociopolitical environments. You’ll find this more prevalent in modern Victorian historical romances or other romances that deal directly with political turmoil, so the notion that legitimately educational historical information is included in a romance novel is not particularly outrageous. That said, there are levels–most regular histrom readers have a basic understanding of the setting of a Regency novel (or think they do…I’m thinking of that time Holly was surprised by some history in Waspish Widows), so many authors don’t need to or feel compelled to provide much historical detail. Where am I going with this, you ask?
Jenkins puts in serious time to educate the reader about what really should be basic American history. We are, for example, introduced to John Brown, not because John Brown is integral to the story, but because what he was doing is integral to the narrative about the political climate surrounding slavery in the US in the 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Act, which ties directly into the Compromise of 1850, is important to the story, but is also explained in more detail than one would probably hear any explanation of any specific political turning point about the American Revolution. Anyway, the point is that yes, this is a romance novel, but it does a lot of work to inform the reader of information that’s often missing from the publicly consumed historical narrative as well.
So, long story short, I’d encourage you to read this book.
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