REVIEW: The Brightest Day by Kianna Alexander,Alyssa Cole,Lena Hart,Piper Huguley
I picked up this anthology because its concept sounded interesting and fresh – it celebrates Juneteenth. The four novellas in the anthology each contain a romance set in the United States at different eras ranging between 1866 and 1961, and each novella grapples with civil rights issues as well as telling the story of a courtship.
Jayne reviewed The Brightest Day as well, and her review can be found here.
The anthology begins with an informative Foreword by author Beverly Jenkins which details some of the history of the Juneteenth holiday (Among other things, I learned that the celebration takes place on June 19th because that was the day in1865 on which Union Army General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and read General Order No. 3, which declared the Texas slaves free). Then come the novellas.
Amazing Grace by Lena Hart
This novella opens in 1852, when Gracie, the heroine, is four years old and she and her family escape slavery. Gracie picks up on her mother’s fear of being caught. She also blames herself for her father’s whipping in the hands of an overseer. It isn’t until much later in the novella that we learn why.
In the following first chapter, which begins in New York in 1866, Logan Finley sells his horse in preparation for a journey to Colorado, and lodges in an inn owned by African Americans.
We quickly learn that Logan, the illegitimate son of a Mexican mother and an Irish American father, fought for the Confederate army during the Civil War. When Logan was sixteen, his father took him away from his mother who remained in Mexico and brought him to his own home, a small tobacco plantation. There Logan learned a new way of life, one that involved “managing servants and slaves.”
Outside near his inn, a young woman stands on a stage and sings in honor of the celebration of freedom. She is Gracie, now eighteen, and the moment in which Logan first hears her sing, his emotional response to her voice, is beautifully portrayed.
The crowd suddenly grew quiet. Not even the wind dared to rustle a leaf. Logan started back toward his lodging, but he didn’t get far.
Like a rolling thunder, her voice moved through him with sweet vibrations. It was strong yet ethereal—the kind that myths were made of. The kind that could soothe and nurture any haunted soul. It enchanted and possessed him.
And kept him frozen where he stood.
Gracie is also about to journey west, in her case, to Montana, where she is contracted to marry a businessman whom she has never met. Robert Whittaker is, like Gracie, a Christian. On their journey, Gracie and another bride named Madeline are to be accompanied by Mrs. Virginia Dobson, a widowed former abolitionist.
Parting from her parents, brother, and students is hard for Gracie, but fighting for the Union in the Civil War has left her father disabled, and Mr. Whittaker has settled much-needed money on them in exchange for Gracie’s hand in marriage.
On the train west, Gracie, Madeline and Mrs. Dobson encounter Logan, who, unlike others on the train, is polite and friendly. Gracie senses the attraction he feels for her but does her best not to show it. But then circumstances leave the two traveling without other companions, and Gracie’s feelings begin to change. What will Gracie do about her commitment to Mr. Whittaker, and what will happen when she learns about Logan’s past?
There’s some touching writing in this novella—I especially liked the prologue in which Gracie’s family escaped, as well as a moving scene between Gracie and her father.
Gracie is a sympathetic heroine, caring and self-sacrificing on the one hand yet brave and passionate in her opinions on the other, and I liked her throughout the story.
Logan was portrayed in a way that made it possible not to hate him, but I never grew to like him.
Though Logan clearly accepted the emancipation of slaves and treated Gracie well, I wasn’t convinced that he fully understood just how wrong owning other human beings had been. He felt in need of redemption, so clearly he intuited it, but at the same time, he never articulated that sense of wrongness in his conversations with Gracie. That may be more believable in terms of his characterization, but it also made it harder to believe Gracie would choose him.
The romance between these two develops very quickly but a bigger problem for me was that I wasn’t comfortable with the premise. In an Author’s Note, Ms. Hart describes Amazing Grace as “a challenging romance for me to write.” It was a challenging, and at times uncomfortable one to read, too. I couldn’t take it as lightly as a fantasy, but nor could I believe that a romance between a former slave and a former slave owner would have been possible in 1866.
I spotted some copyediting errors like “endear” in place of “endure,” but that was a more minor consideration. I am really not sure what to grade this novella—craft-wise it deserves a C+ but the premise just didn’t work for me, so maybe a C-?
Drifting to You by Kianna Alexander
It’s the summer of 1875 and Fayetteville baker Rosaline Rhodes has been invited on a cruise down Cape Fear in honor of Juneteenth by Marian Goodman, the well-to-do, free born matriarch of the Goodman family. Mrs. Goodman has also commissioned Rosaline to bake a five tier version of her cinnamon spice cake that will be served on the cruise.
On her way back from the market with the needed spices, Rosaline literally bumps into shipbuilder Will Pruett. Will, who is putting the finishing touches on the Hope’s Lantern, the Goodmans’ ship, is also invited. Rosaline and Will have run into each other before, and although she doesn’t realize it, Will is falling for her.
Will who, like Rosaline, is a former slave, has a ghost in his past—the girl he once loved from afar and who died before she could be emancipated. Will never shared his feelings with Starla, and now he’s determined not to make the same mistake with Rosaline. The cruise will be his opportunity to declare his love.
But Rosaline is also haunted by a painful trauma, and doesn’t know if she should trust the feelings she’s begun having for Will. And Mrs. Goodman encourages Rosaline to turn her eyes in a different direction. Will Rosaline listen to Mrs. Goodman, or to her heart?
I liked this novella. Will is a lovely hero honorable, strong and someone Rosaline could count on. I loved the way his sex appeal was conveyed with freshness and humor in a scene in which Rosaline has a vision of him:
Her mouth was no longer dry; now, it watered.
Glory. If ever the good Lord made a man finer than this one, she didn’t want to meet him; she didn’t think she could bear to look at him.
Rosaline is a terrific heroine, also strong, sweet, and appreciative of her independence. There is a scene in which Mrs. Goodman implies that Rosaline and Will’s stations are below her own because they were once enslaved while she was born free, and I loved the way Rosaline rejected that.
There’s also some wonderfully descriptive writing in this novella—the setting aboard Hope’s Lantern comes alive with a festive atmosphere and the sounds and sights of the river. Here’s an example:
From their position, the view of the sunset took her breath away. The fiery orb of the sun sank below the tops of the towering pines, centering the broad ribbons of purple, red, and gold festooning the horizon. The sounds of the chatter inside faded beneath the sloshing water thrown off by the paddle wheel and the chriping and croaking of the frogs and insects hidden in the foliage along the river’s edge.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” His velvet baritone invaded her thoughts.
My favorite scene of all comes when Will and Rosaline open up to each other about their painful pasts. The scene achieves a raw emotional intimacy that moved me to tears. It’s evident these two strong people are survivors. They may have scars, but their past can’t rob them of their connection, or lessen their appreciation of what they have in the present.
I have a couple of quibbles, mainly that I wish we’d been told how Will and Rosaline first met, that I’m not sure the intrusion of Mrs. Goodman’s nephew into their courtship added much, and that given the way she looked down on former slaves, I wanted an explanation for Mrs. Goodman’s decision to host a Juneteenth celebration.
Once again I caught a few distracting copyediting errors like “jumping to broom” for “jumping the broom,” and “Hartfied” for “Hartfield.” Overall though, this was a good story. B-.
A Sweet Way to Freedom by Piper Huguley
Set in 1910 in Winslow, Georgia, this novella is the story of Missouri “Missy” Baxter, a young woman who is the pride of her family, a graduate of Milford College at the top of her class. Missy took a teaching position in Winslow, a backwater town relative to her home of Milford, but one where she came to love not only her students, but also Arlo Tucker.
But now Missy can no longer hide the pregnancy that resulted from their affair. Arlo hasn’t asked her to marry him, and she is about to lose her teaching position. Missy doesn’t know whether to stay on in Milford until her child is born, then go somewhere far away and call herself a widow, or to go home to her family.
When Arlo hears that his sister Lona, also pregnant and about to give birth any day, has gone to the schoolhouse to confront Missy, he thinks to prevent a fight. He finds the two women having a polite conversation, and seeing Missy again reminds him how much he’s missed her.
But Arlo has reason to think that he’s bad news for any woman. He believes he’s cursed, and Missy is better off without him. Missy views him as a good time guy—after all he owns the local place where people go to dance and get drunk, wasting hard-earned dollars that could feed their families. And when Arlo confesses he’s fathered two other children that Missy has never seen, she’s sure he can’t be relied on.
Can Arlo prove to Missy that he could make a good husband and father? More importantly, can he prove it to himself?
This was a moving novella, not just because of its redemption theme, but also because of the way it created a sense of place, of community, and of family. Arlo’s sister Lona and her four daughters, his nieces, played an important role in bringing Arlo and Missy together, as did Miss Annie the midwife.
It’s easy to sympathize with Missy’s predicament. She is determined to find a way to raise her child well, with or without Arlo’s help. Arlo seems at first glance like a dubious prospect (charming rogues rarely appeal to me because they can seem flighty, so it took me a while to connect with him), but deep down, part of Arlo yearns for more.
I really loved that Arlo’s doubts about his ability to be a good father and husband are rooted not just in his childhood but also in more recent events in his life. When I arrived at the scene in which he finally tells Missy about the latter, I had to reach for a box of tissues.
There is a texture of reality to this novella that makes it feel authentic. Religion is part of the fabric of the characters’ lives, but that aspect of the story feels natural, never preachy or intrusive. The characters are vivid, but at the same time, they feel real. If there are one or two awkward sentences, there are also sections that are pure poetry, like this one, which comes early on, when Missy asks Arlo to leave her house:
He went to her and embraced her, awkwardly from the side, as if he didn’t know how to hold her anymore. Missouri didn’t move. Didn’t turn her body to him, didn’t respond in any way.
No use. Didn’t she love him just the least little bit? But if she didn’t want to listen to what he had to say…what could he do? All of his bad luck was hard to take in, even for himself.
Dropping his arms, he moved to the door, opened it, and stepped through into the steamy late May night, feeling as roasted as the beef in the stew.
There were times when freedom felt humid. Sticky wet, with a heaviness inside of him, just like the small, wet circles on Missouri Baxter’s shirtwaist.
A strong B for this one.
Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole
It’s the spring of 1961 and Sofronia “Sofie” Wallis is two semesters into her college education when she attends church and hears about another girl’s arrest. Patty sat down in the “whites only” part of the bus and was thrown off, losing the baby she was carrying in the process.
Ever since the death of her mother, Sofie has tried to be what her father wants her to be, a quiet, polite young woman, one who would never dream of protesting the way she and her friends are treated. But that’s not the truth of who Sofie really is, and lately, she finds it hard to contain the anger building inside her.
So Sofie volunteers for a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the meeting are her friends David and Henrietta, who think she’s only joining in an administrative capacity, and a man Sofie finds herself unable to take her eyes off of, even though he’s white.
It’s only when he offers her a ride that Sofie realizes she knows this man—he is Ivan Friedman, once the boy her mother looked after and cooked for. Back then—eight years earlier—Ivan had a crush on Sofie, but their friendship ended when Sofie’s mother died in a way that, though it was neither’s fault, left both of them feeling to blame.
Since then Ivan has become drawn to boxing, to the Civil Rights movement and now, more dangerously, to Sofie, whom he’s never stopped missing and thinking of. Like Sofie, Ivan wants to join the freedom riders’ sit-ins and demonstrations, and he volunteers to teach the others in the group how to minimize the pain if forced to take a punch.
Their activism brings Ivan and Sofie closer together, and the more they see of one another, the more their attraction grows. But Ivan’s father is prejudiced against African Americans, and Sofie’s father, prejudiced against Jewish Americans. Sofie’s father wants to keep her safe by teaching her to behave like a paragon out of an etiquette book. Ivan’s father wants him to stay out of fights he doesn’t see as Ivan’s own. Can Sofie and Ivan find their own path, a way to bridge the gap?
I loved this novella and most especially Sofie, who was a terrific heroine. The conflict between her need to express her anger and desire for justice and her upbringing was as strong as the one between her feelings for Ivan and the obstacles she knew they faced. There’s a beautiful clarity to the writing, and I loved the way the power with which Sofie’s suppressed emotion is conveyed:
Sofie felt a pressure building up in her chest, a burning hot anger that surprised her. She didn’t get mad. Everyone knew that, and if everyone knew it, it must be true. Just like everone knew that a black girl who sat at the front of the bus deserved whatever she got for causing trouble. The belt that cinched Sofie’s favorite blue dress suddenly seemed too tight.
Ivan is also a well-drawn character, and it’s obvious the author has researched his background. I loved that his parents escaped Budapest before the Holocaust, but not without paying a heavy cost. I loved that he was boxer, with a nod to “the Jewish boxers that dominated the sport for years.” I appreciated, too, that Ivan was excluded from the white country club.
But the latter, and knowing that Jewish Americans were sometimes turned away from restaurants and other businesses before the Civil Rights movement, made it a little jarring that neither Ivan nor his father seemed to see the Civil Rights struggle as something that could reap benefits for Jewish Americans as a group.
The other jarring moment I had came when Ivan and Sofie arrived at a conflict between what she cared about and what he wanted. The conflict was resolved quickly, but I wished for just a little more insight into Ivan’s motive there because I couldn’t relate to it.
Lest I make this novella sound like it’s all history, let me state that it’s also romantic with a capital R. The emotions of attraction, courtship, and budding love are handled as beautifully as the social justice issues. There’s a scene in which Ivan undoes a button on Sofie’s glove, and that small act is imbued with more desire and yearning than a lot of sex scenes have.
Both the changing times and the characters’ changing emotions are wonderfully rendered. And when the end comes, I was so impressed that the novella tackled head on the obstacles that Sofie and Ivan would face, while convincing me this couple would make it. A-/A.