A Virtuous Ruby by Piper Hughley many moons ago (it was a RWA Golden Heart finalist in 2013) I knew I was going to have to read it. It's a series set in the early 20th century, around The Great Migration - when rural blacks were heading to industrial cities looking for better opportunities (education, jobs, getting away from Jim Crow...). On the historical level, this book is exceptional. On the personal level? Well it all depends on what you're looking for. But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit...
Ruby Bledsoe has earned the reputation of resident troublemaker in Winslow, Georgia. She joins forces with her Uncle Arlo who thinks there should be a local chapter of the NAACP and better working conditions at the mill in town, owned by the wealthiest white man in town, Paul Winslow. The town is named after him so that'll give you a get a good idea of his character. Anyway, Ruby and Arlo are getting to be a problem - which leads to Arlo getting lynched and Ruby ends up getting raped (and subsequently pregnant) by Paul's son, David - a childhood friend of Ruby's, just in case all that wasn't horrifying enough. These incidents take place off page (although Ruby has a flashback of the rape later in the book) and we start the story with Ruby finally leaving the family home for the first time in nearly a year.
She leaves home in time to meet Dr. Adam Morson, a new doctor in town just stepping off the train. Adam studied medicine at the University of Michigan and didn't get thrown out on his ear (or worse) because he's so light-skinned he can pass as white. Ruby, who helps women in town as a midwife, takes one look at this fancy doctor passing himself off as something he isn't and....let's just say she's not impressed. Turns out he's the by-blow of none other than Paul Winslow - who paid for Adam's education and has now called him to Winslow to be the "colored doctor."
From a conflict standpoint, this is not an easy read. I'll be honest, as much as I love romance, I've waded through some silly and outrageous conflict in my time. In contrast, this conflict is so very real and so very tough. I'm not an end reader. Never have been. And yes, I knew this was a romance and knew it was going to have a happy ending. That said? I was still tempted to peek. I think a big part of the reason was how recent this history is and how echoes of this history are still reverberating across the American landscape. It's not going to be a book for everybody. I think everybody should read it because Huguley handles tough conflict so very well - but if you're an escapist, fluffy, lollipops sort of romance reader (and there's nothing wrong with that by the way) - this one is not easy. I admire it for not being easy but....it ain't easy.
Because of the nature of the conflict there are trigger warnings all over this story. I literally spent this entire novel fearing for Ruby's life. In Ruby's world speaking out can get you killed. Then she's raped, and naturally this is her "shame" to bear. She has brought shame on her family. She was asking for it. She used to crush on David and chase after him so she must have thrown herself at him because of course. Then there is baby Solomon who is evidence of "her shame." To add to the rage-inducing nature of this conflict, Huguley has to go and write complex characters. There's no one-dimensional evil villains here, in a story where it would have been so easy to write nothing but one-dimensional evil villains.
The romance builds slowly. The attraction is immediate but for all the reasons already stated, Adam and Ruby can't drop everything and jump into bed. Which brings me to another point - these characters don't jump into bed together at the first flutter of hormones and Huguley does not ignore the fact that faith plays a role in their everyday lives. These are people of faith. They live their lives by a moral code. Faith and the church are an intregal part of their lives and this romance is firmly in "just kisses" territory.
This is either going to be make-or-break for the reader. I'll be honest - while I welcomed that the author didn't blatantly ignore the impact the church would have on (and in) this community - it's a lot of "church stuff." In fact there's more Churchy McChurchy Stuff in this book than in 95% of the inspirationals I've read. That said, I didn't feel like the author was trying to convert me or push "an agenda" and with this story you cannot simply ignore the influence of the church - but I also "get" that some readers pretty much want no whiff of religion in their romances. And since this book isn't marketed as an inspirational romance, I think it's worth mentioning. Mileage is going to vary depending on where you fall.
My final verdict? This was an exhausting read - in the respect that it wasn't an easy one. Not because the author is a poor writer or I disliked the characters - but because I spent a lot of the book outraged by the circumstances the characters found themselves in through no fault of their own. It's not easy to read about Ruby wanting basic civil rights and common decency - only to be raped by a childhood friend. It's not easy to read about Adam making the choice to pass as white just so he can get an education and become a doctor. But then history very rarely is easy, of which Huguley has so capably reminded us.
Final Grade = B