Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Review: Indigo

When people talk about Beverly Jenkins' books some common threads always appear.  They talk about her use of history in the context of developing a romance arc.  They talk about her stellar heroines.  They talk about her manly heroes who, generally speaking, fall hard for the heroine.  And they talk about Indigo - her third published book and a favorite for many, many of her fans.  After listening to it on audio?  I can see why.  There is so much to unpack in this story.

Hester Wyatt's father was a free man who sold himself into bondage to be with Hester's mother.  After his death, Hester and her mother were sold (separately) and after 6 years Hester, still a young child, was spirited away from the South Carolina indigo plantation by a man posing as a slave trader.  Turns out he was working for Hester's aunt, her father's sister, a free woman living in Michigan.  Hester was no longer a slave.  She learned at her aunt's knee, and continued her abolitionist work after her death.  Hester's home near Ann Arbor, Michigan is part of the Underground Railroad.

It's on a dark, stormy night that Galen Vachon arrives on her doorstep, severely beaten.  Galen is known as "The Black Daniel," so infamous for helping runaway slaves that the bounty on his head is astronomical.  Galen firmly believes that there is a traitor in Hester's small town, which nearly led to his capture by vile slave catchers, whereas Hester cannot fathom such a notion.  She lives in a town of good people, many of them heavily involved in the Railroad and other abolitionist causes.  Surely Galen is mistaken.

That's how the story opens - with Hester nursing a wounded (and cantankerous) man back to health while hiding the fact he's living in her cellar when slave catchers come knocking on her door.  Then, about halfway through, Galen's true identity is revealed.  He comes from a very wealthy Louisiana Creole family with some dramatic family dynamics and enough money and power at his disposal to aid the abolitionist cause.

So this is really the tale of two books.  It starts off one way (Galen is just some ordinary bloke doing extraordinary work) and finished another (Galen is a rich man whose money makes life easier - in some respects - for the romantic couple).  I could see some readers being disappointed with this turn of events reading the book for the first time in 2018 - because, to be honest, we hit Peak Billionaire Saturation Point about 5 years ago.  But it's a very smart authorial choice by Jenkins as it allows her to address a lot of -isms in relation to the developing romance.

Besides racism, Jenkins also addresses classism and colorism into the conflict of the romance.  Galen's grandmother is a piece of work, and the Creole's have their own rich, vibrant history within the framework of US History at large.  But that doesn't mean they were immune to -isms.  Galen falling for a dark skinned former slave, whose bondage is branded on her in the form of her permanently indigo stained hands and feet, would be painfully unacceptable to someone like his grandmother.  Add to this that Galen's grandfather left his grandmother for his dark-skinned mistress and yeah.  Hester would be seen as less than nothing.  It would be the equivalent of a Duke falling in love with a scullery maid.  It just isn't done.

Then, of course, there's the racism.  The Underground Railroad and the work of abolitionists features prominently and per Jenkins' modus operandi, she creates an entire community around the primary romance and larger story.  I've read probably a handful of Jenkins' work now (4 or 5?) and my usual quibble is that I wish her plotting were tighter.  Well, turns out - that's not really my quibble.  Indigo finally has helped me to articulate what Jenkins does so well: she creates Community Based Romance.  Basically she's writing Small Town Contemporary except her books aren't always in small towns or contemporaries.  She doesn't just give readers the romance.  She gives readers a whole community.  And, if you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you'll know that that's not really my "thing" in the romance genre.  It's why I love category length romance so much - that intense, hyper-awareness of the romance. I basically want to be claustrophobic in the romance with no outside distractions.  So yeah. Jenkins' plotting is not "too loose."  She's building a world - which is what 95% of what readers want and I'm simply contrary.  Seriously, do you love small town contemporaries?  Jenkins' historicals are PERFECT crossover. Turns out Wendy is not too old to learn.

Books like Indigo make me wish someone could pay me a livable wage to sit around and talk romance novels all day.  It's the kind of book that scholars should study - because what Jenkins creates is amazing.  How she addresses slavery, classism, colorism, and even sexism (some of Hester's male counterparts working on the Railroad are dismissive of the work the women are doing - because OF COURSE they are).  There were moments where I felt the history Jenkins infuses into the story wasn't always seamless (John Brown's Raid comes into play at the end, and it felt like a clunky insertion), but having read some of Jenkins' later work, I think this is more a by-product of her getting stronger as a writer over time (remember, this was only her third published book!).  Also, I "get" why some of those less-than-seamless historical elements were included in the story - they make sense given the lives the characters are living.

I feel like I can ramble on about this book for days.  There's just a lot here and now usurps Topaz as my favorite Jenkins book.  The heroine is simply dynamite (she is so, so good - even by Jenkins' stellar heroine standards) and the larger themes the author explores are just so incredibly well-thought out without weighing down the romance.  A tour de force.

Final Grade = A-


azteclady said...

I sincerely wish someone would pay you a livable wage (and benefits) just to talk romance genre everywhere.

Unknown said...

So my library doesn't have Indigo on audio and it's listed at $25.95 on iBooks (I don't purchase from Audible/Amazon for reasons). Is it worth it? Or should I just read it in print?

Wendy said...

AL: Something tells me the pay wouldn't be near what I'm making now. Mores the pity :(

Unknown: Honestly? I'd read it in print. It's "OK" on audio - but the narrator reads the hero's voice in an attempt at a Creole accent and I found it distracting.

Laura Vivanco said...

"It's the kind of book that scholars should study"

And it has been studied (though of course there's always room for more analysis!) in:

Dandridge, Rita B., Black Women's Activism: Reading African American Women's Historical Romances (New York: Peter Lang, 2004).

Roach, Catherine M., Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 2016).

It may have been studied in some other places too, but those are the works which immediately sprang to mind when you mentioned studying Indigo.

Wendy said...

Thank you Laura! I knew Jenkins' work (in general) had been studied but hadn't gotten around to doing a search on Indigo specifically. Will check these out!