REVIEW: A Champion’s Heart by Piper Huguley
Dear Ms. Huguley,
Like your earlier historical romances, A Champion’s Heart, the first book in your new Born to Win Men series, features African-American characters and takes place during the Great Migration; in this case in 1935.
As the story opens, Champion Jack Bates, a boxer who owes his name to the fact that he comes from a line of men bred and forced to fight in battle royals during the era of slavery, obtains the money he needs to train and bulk up for a match against a white boxer.
Champ’s backer is Jay Evans (hero of A Treasure of Gold). Jay’s wife, Nettie, has a grudge against Champ. Nettie’s sister, Cordelia “Delie” May Bledsoe, was Champ’s sweetheart seven years ago, before Champ abandoned Delie to wait all night for him at a Georgia train station, unaware that he had taken an earlier train out of town.
Now Champ is about to return to his hometown of Winslow, Georgia, to train and bulk up from his mother’s cooking in preparation for the big fight. But it is also Delie’s hometown to which he will return, and though he has never forgotten her or stopped loving her, he doesn’t know if she can forgive his abandonment.
In the time since Champ left, Delie has known her share of hardship. Not only did she take in four-year-old Bonnie, ten-year-old Willie, eight-year-old Roy, and eight-year-old Flo, two pairs of siblings abandoned at the school where she taught, six years earlier she also gave birth to Champion’s son, Neal.
Before his return to Winslow, Champion has no idea that Delie had a son in his absence. Delie could not locate Champ to inform him, and Champ’s mother, Effie, not only withheld the knowledge of Neal’s paternity from Champ, she also told him that Delie was dating other men. For years, Delie prayed for and dreamed of Champ’s return, but when he comes back she doesn’t know what to do with her anger and hurt.
It is the height of the Great Depression and Delie and her sister Em are struggling to feed and clothe the five children. Delie goes to the bank to offer up the only thing she and Em have left, the farm their parents bequeathed them, and meets Champ on the way there. At the bank, Hank Johnson, a racist banker, offers her money if she’ll take the children and leave Winslow.
On the way back to the farm, Champ offers his help, but Delie isn’t in a forgiving mood. Champ is about to head to his mother’s when Em sees him and invites him to lunch. There, Delie tells Champ Neal’s age and waits for him to put the pieces together. A shocked Champ staggers to his mother’s house, but Effie refuses to acknowledge Neal as her grandson and tells Champ that Delie was always a fast girl.
Unable to believe his mother but reluctant to think the worst of her, Champ returns to Delie’s farm the next day. He fixes broken fence posts and brings groceries for breakfast. When Neal and Willie learn that Champ is a boxer, they begin to hero-worship him. Neither they nor Delie know that Champ hasn’t obeyed Jay’s condition that he see a doctor, because the last doctor he saw told him that if he persisted in boxing, it could cost him his eyesight.
Champ suggests that Delie take Hank Johnson’s money and, with his help, acquire a bus in which Champ can drive her, Em, and the kids to Pittsburgh, where Nettie and Jay can take them in. Delie can’t deny that it would be good to see her sisters again and that the north offers greater opportunities for her, Em and the children than the south under Jim Crow.
And so, after Champ fixes up the old Model T “Tin Lizzie” that belonged to Delie’s father and he and Delie trade it in for a rickety bus, Champ, Delie, Em and the five children set out on a journey from Winslow to Pittsburgh. Along the way they stop to sightsee and shelter with friends, but also face danger from strangers.
Will Champ, Delie, Em, Bonnie, Willie, Roy, Flo and Neal make it to Pittsburgh safely? Will Champ risk his eyesight to win the big fight that can prove that African Americans (then called “negroes”) are not in any way lesser? Will Champ take a stand with his mother? And will Delie open her heart to Champ’s love for her and forgive him?
There is so much to appreciate in A Champion’s Heart. First, the characters. Both Champ and Delie are good people with human flaws and feel like they could be real, yet have heroic qualities.
Champ’s reasons for abandoning Delie make sense and once he explains them, it is hard to hold his actions against him, especially given that he was just seventeen at the time and had no idea that Delie was pregnant. Once he comes back, he does everything he can to make life easier and better for Delie and the children, yearning for Delie’s love and forgiveness.
Delie’s difficulty in forgiving Champ, while it goes on a touch long, is also understandable. She expected a future with him but found herself pregnant with only her late parents’ support. When her parents passed away, she not only raised Neal but the other four kids as well. She remains a devoted and good mother to all five in the face of both economic hardship and racism, and though she tries to harden her heart against Champ, eventually his thoughtfulness gets to her.
Second, the chemistry. Champ and Delie’s romantic longings for one another and their bumpy journey to happiness made me root for them. They felt right for each other—a couple that had each grown in their years apart and, now that they were adults, were ready to do the necessary work to make their relationship successful.
Third, the setting. Small details from cloche hats and marcelled hair to the Tin Lizzy meld with larger social details such as the Great Depression or the difficulty of finding a restroom for the kids to use while traveling through the Jim Crow South. All these serve to bring the 1930s to life.
Fourth, the writing. Here I have a few caveats. One or two plot details could have been set up better—for instance, I spent half the book wondering if Delie’s sisters knew that she and the kids were on their way there because the letter Delie wrote them wasn’t mentioned until quite late in the book. Some of the same-scene POV changes confused me as to whose thoughts I was reading. There are a few copyediting errors, too, such a misspelled word here (“agoe” for “ago”) or a missing word that results in an unintentional image there (“He opened his mouth to respond when fat tears started to form in Delie’s”).
But the writing is also lovely in places. Take for example, this scene:
He pulled over as she directed. Not waiting for him to come around, she opened her own door. “Thank you.”
Champ turned off the car, fully aware they were illegally parked in front of the bank. “I can come in with you.”
He addressed the wind, since Delie had swung into the bank by herself, moving as poetry could only be read. There were some words written by a young poet that he liked to read when he was by himself. A Mr. Langston Hughes, who spoke about the beauty of the brown-eyed, brown-skinned girl. He could say that poem to Delie. She might like to hear that.
And then he remembered.
He used to write poetry. Bad poetry to read to her, way long time ago, back when they were young, free and in love.
Was there nothing he could do to remind her of that past life?
Looking both ways, he stepped out of the street onto the wooden curb. He could protect her now, even when she didn’t want it. With purpose, he followed her into the bank.
Fifth, I love the perspective on African-American history that this novel offers. It is a celebration of the strength of Delie and Champ in the face of prejudices and hardship, as well as of the resilience of the real people who lived through similar adversities.
Additionally, racial prejudices are portrayed with nuance and subtlety. Not every racist in the book is a lecher like Hank Johnson, nor are they all purely evil. There are shades of gray in these portrayals, which show, at the same time, how pervasive and thorny racial bias can be.
Sixth, the story is also suspenseful. The whole time Champion, Delie, Em and the kids were driving through the Jim Crow south on the old bus, my heart was in my throat because stakes don’t get much higher than this. I was terrified that the bus would break down or run out of gas and Delie and Champ would be stranded in a hostile environment, having to protect the vulnerable children.
And seventh, with the above in mind, Champ and Delie’s requests of God to watch out for one another felt completely natural. Your books may be inspirational romances, but I appreciate so much that they aren’t preachy. Instead the characters’ faith feels organic to their background and right for their journeys.
B+ for A Champion’s Heart–this book is a winner.