nonfiction

Book Review: Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

I didn’t know that this would end up being such a timely read.

Civil rights are a cause that’s near and dear to my heart. Everyone deserves the full rights of citizenship in the country of their birth or the country they’ve adopted as their own, and the fact that America still hasn’t managed to get it together in this aspect and is actively trying to move backwards is a filthy stain on our collective soul. But there are people out there fighting to right these wrongs (Stacey Abrams, you are an absolute jewel!), and some of them write books about their experiences. When I heard about Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era by Jerry Mitchell (Simon & Schuster, 2020), I knew I had to read it. Bless my library for having a copy on their shelves.

During the 1960s, white supremacists decided that their right to feel special was more important than anyone’s civil rights or right to live, so instead of getting some therapy and examining why they felt that way, they decided that murder was the answer. Members of the Ku Klux Klan plotted, planned, and carried out the murders of white and black civil rights workers, along with everyday people- including children- who were just living their lives. And far, far too often, the perpetrators and the planners of these murders walked free, even when they bragged about what they’d done to everyone with functioning eardrums. Even when some of them were Christian clergy. Think about that.

Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist working for Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, knew that there were plenty of wrongs that needed to be righted, so he set about unlocking the clues to the past. Interviewing family members of the victims, former and current KKK members, and anyone who had anything to do with these cases where justice wasn’t served, he began to help the state piece together legal cases against the alleged killers. It wasn’t easy; so many witnesses had already died, more were suffering from diseases of old age, and the ones who were still full of life made Mr. Mitchell acutely aware that his life was as expendable as those of their earlier victims. But with his well-honed journalist skills and a deep-seated sense of justice and integrity, with well-timed articles that brought crucial and long-buried information to light, Jerry Mitchell aided in the prosecution of some of the dirtiest murderers of the Civil Rights era.

This is really an incredible book. Mr. Mitchell’s dedication is deeply admirable, and his bravery is oftentimes both commendable and shocking. I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I would feel even remotely safe traveling to and going inside Byron de la Beckwith’s house (he was the man who murdered Medgar Evers), but Mr. Mitchell did. He repeatedly made contact with various people whose pasts were infuriating and frightening, who said disgusting things in his presence. Some of them had since reformed and expressed regret over their actions. Many had not, and yet Jerry Mitchell still persevered in order to get the information necessary to pen the articles that would change everything.

He’s quick to point out that he failed more times than he won, that there are still plenty of cold cases where justice was not served and where the families of the victims never received any kind of closure. But the cases he was instrumental in helping bring to court- the murder of Medgar Evers, the murder of the three civil rights workers portrayed in the movie Mississippi Burning, the murder of the four little girls in the 16th Street church bombing, and the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer- were high-profile, and while individual cases don’t make up for the lack of justice overall, the conviction of these killers is deeply satisfying. Mr. Mitchell tells the story of his work in these cases in a fast-paced read that will keep you racing through the pages in order to learn the final verdicts of each case and how they were reached.

An excellent book, and so timely for today. May we all be Jerry Mitchells in our pursuit of justice, every single day.

Visit Jerry Mitchell’s organization, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

Sometimes books end up on my TBR because people I love have read and raved about them, and that’s how I came across Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Vintage, 1999). My friend Sandy had read it years ago and mentioned it in my parenting forum- she may have even recommended it directly to me as something she thought I’d like. Onto my TBR it went! To be honest, if I’d seen the publication date, I may not have read it; I was a little iffy about starting it when I did see it. Not because I have anything against older books, but sometimes older nonfiction can be out of date and irrelevant. Not so with this book; if anything, this book reveals how long today’s problems have been simmering. It should have served as a massive, massive red flag when it was first published.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, is still a source of deep fascination for many Americans (and some non-Americans, as Mr. Horwitz shows!). From amateur history buffs to hardcore reenactors, from condescending politicians to red-faced parents screaming in stuffy high school gyms about Confederate flags and racist high school mascots, so many people think they know exactly what the Civil War was fought for and what happened at every step of the way. Some of these people get it. Others have rewritten their own version of history and have dedicated their lives to living in a way that honors that revised history. For so many people, for a multitude of reasons, the Civil War didn’t end and it’s still being played out in various forms today.

Tony Horwitz travels all over the South, visiting battlefields, gravesites, reenactments, museums, and the people who are still living out the consequences of Americans fighting Americans. He covers the tense racial climate that persists in this country, that we never really dealt with and that will continue to persist until we do. He follows a few hardcore reenactors who wear grimy, period-appropriate costumes (that they don’t wash, for authenticity, right along with their bodies…ew) as they tramp across various battlefields in the heat of a southern summer. He profiles a murder that happened because of a Confederate flag, a woman makes a career of performing as Scarlett O’Hara (and is beloved by the Japanese, who apparently adore Southern culture), and visits dusty museums with sometimes bizarre period relics.

There are so many times where this book fairly screams out, “You should have seen this coming, 2021 reader!” The hatred, the racial tension, the division, the utter selfishness and concern for no one but oneself, all of this is right there in the text and makes it fairly obvious that the rise of Donald Trump and the cult that follows him was inevitable and shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It wasn’t a surprise to me, based on other things I’ve followed for most of my adult life, but this book lays it all out there and makes it utterly, utterly obvious in a way that’s honestly pretty depressing.

You don’t have to be a history buff or love the Civil War in order to read this, but it helps. Tony Horwitz has an almost jovial writing style that makes the reader feel as though they’re riding in the car next to him, tramping along beside him on a Virginia battlefield, and listening to him interview his various subjects. He goes places that I wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable in, even after his interviewees make hideous antisemitic comments (Mr. Horwitz was Jewish), and his bravery here is to be admired. This book is a fascinating look at what some people take away from history, what they choose to cling to, and what we as a country can’t move on from. Perhaps we don’t really want to.

There are other Tony Horwitz books that I’d like to read, but as he died, far too young, in 2019, my brain is already screaming at me to space them out, to make what he left for us last, so I don’t know when I’ll pick up another of his books, but this definitely won’t be my last. His style and clarity really spoke to me, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his insights.

Tony Horwitz, who was married to author Geraldine Brooks, died in 2019. Visit his website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

The US has a terrible past (and present) in regards to racism. Scratch the surface of just about any topic and you’ll reveal its racist roots- it’s an unfortunately truth, because things didn’t have to be things way, but we let it, and the only way to change things going forward is to confront what we’ve been and resolve not to be that again. The history of medical research leading up to the miracle of modern organ transplantation is no different, and after discovering The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones (Gallery/Jeter Publishing, 2020) in a Book Riot email, I knew I had to read it. Onto my TBR it went.

In 1968, William Tucker, a Black man from Virginia got a received a strange phone call about his brother Bruce- something about his being in the hospital, and a bizarre comment about them taking his heart. After scrambling for information that no one seemed to want to provide, William learned that Bruce had died following a head injury. The hospital had never contacted anyone from the family, despite William’s business card with his phone number being in Bruce’s wallet upon his arrival at the hospital, and stranger still, they had removed his heart and kidneys without permission in order to use them for transplants, a new and still very much experimental procedure at this time. William was horrified at this desecration of his brother’s body and contacted a lawyer.

But medical experiments (often ones that lead to groundbreaking research and treatments) have a deeply racist history in the US; the progress medical science has made has often been built on brown and Black backs and bodies, quite often without their consent. Chip Jones delves into the history of Black grave robbing by medical schools for research purposes and how that led to William Tucker’s missing organs. His case went to court, and the outcome ultimately led to a change in legislation when it comes to organ donation and consent, but the history is there and cannot be erased, nor should it be hidden. The Organ Thieves shines a light on a subject a lot of people most likely know very little about.

Organ transplants have featured heavily in the books I’ve read throughout my life. In the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, I read Why Me? by Deborah Kent (about an adopted teenager who receives a donated kidney from her biological mother) over and over again, and plowed through a ton of Lurlene McDaniel’s medical dramas for young adults, which often featured teenagers who were awaiting donated organs. And of course there was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and recently, Rachel Solomon’s Our Year of Maybe. But I never really knew the history of transplantation, the many failures and deaths it took to get to the place where receiving a donated organ meant a new lease on life, the difficulties doctors first had in recognizing the symptoms of rejection, and what this all meant for Black patients. They were aware of the grave robbing and knew this would have bigger implications, and unfortunately, this proved to be true. And all of this and more (such as history of the Tuskegee study) has led to the hesitancy of Black people in taking the Covid-19 vaccine. History never dies; its consequences ring throughout time like the loudest of bells.

There’s even more racist medical history that Mr. Jones doesn’t touch (the history of gynecology is utterly horrifying), but what he does cover is bad enough. The trial that covered the removal of Bruce Tucker’s organs without family consent is a complex read; the trial itself raised many questions and led to necessary changes in legislation, but at a heavy emotional cost for the Tucker family and the many others who came before them. So much of our progress as a society- maybe all of it- has been made at the expense of others.

At times, the story gets just the tiniest bit dry, but The Organ Thieves is so important that pushing on through is necessary and rewarding- you’ll be better informed, a better ally, better at knowing what shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever read or watched a medical thriller or drama and enjoyed it, or benefited from organ transplants or medical research that came from corpses dug up in the dead of night (and this is probably everyone), this is a book you should be aware of. We owe those unnamed people and Bruce Tucker that much.

Visit Chip Jones’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Between the World and Me- Ta-Nehisi Coates

BookRiot suggested Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me as a book by a journalist or about journalism, #5 on their Read Harder 2019 Challenge. I’d been wanting to read Coates for ages now, and this seemed like an excellent place to start.

I’m not even sure what I can say that would even begin to do justice to this beautiful, painful little book. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Mr. Coates covers a wide range of topics: the danger of making ones way through life in a black body; the fear he feels for his son when teenagers like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and his friend Prince Carmen Jones wind up dead on the street with no consequences for the people who kill them; the breathtakingly cruel history of slavery, and the trauma and consequences of that history that still resound in our justice system and in everyday lives of black people; and the story of how he became the man he is today.

Mr. Coates conveys his anger, his frustration, his pain, and his wonder at his son and being a father in such eloquent, moving language that had I wanted to write down the most meaningful quotes, I would’ve ended up copying out the entire book, and if I had wanted to underline the parts that touched me deeply, angered me, made me think, there would’ve been a line under every piece of text . This starts on the very first page and doesn’t end until the last, with the imagery of sheets of rain a haunting metaphor for the grief one feels when we look around and are able to see all the trauma White America has inflicted and continues to inflict on people with black skin. I am deeply, deeply ashamed and angered. We should be so much better than that, but we actively choose not to be, and it’s infuriating.

This is an important book, and although I have yet to fully engage with audiobooks, I feel as though this would make a stunning one. Mr. Coates’s impassioned words deserve to be voiced out loud, as so much of the book reads like the most powerful speech you’ve ever heard. If you’ve enjoyed this as an audiobook, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I think this is a book everyone will be handed in school, if not now (as it should be), then in the future. It deserves to be read widely, repeatedly, until its words are engraved on our souls, until we finally GET IT, and then even more so that we never forget.

View Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing at The Atlantic here.

black history · nonfiction · space

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space- Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly has been on my radar for a while. It’s been front and center on bookstore tables, on display at the library, and I think I’ve seen it on just about every book blog out there. And don’t forget the movie, which was wonderful (and I’m usually not a fan of anything dealing with space. Too many chances for things to go wrong and for the astronauts to get lost up there. Anxiety!). I’d always planned on reading it, but I never thought I’d get to it so soon (more on that later).

During World War II, the NACA (the agency that would eventually become NASA) needed calculations done for the research and construction of new aircraft, and a large number of those doing the calculations (by hand, of course!) were black female mathematicians. Making what was a good salary at the time, these women worked long days, often into the night, churning out packets of sophisticated equations, often without full knowledge of what they were working on or what the final results of the project ended up being. And they did it all in a world that, up until this point, had steadfastly refused to acknowledge their talents and successes solely due to the color of their skin.

Ms. Shetterly tells the story of women like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden, painting a picture of their lives both before and after coming to the NACA, and the times they lived in. Even as these women were filling pages after page with face-melting math, black soldiers in uniform were being spit on by their fellow Americans and being refused service in restaurants. As they calculated trajectories and handed in the scores of math that would make military victory (and eventually space flight) possible, people who looked like them were still being told to sit at the back of the bus. Before coming to the NACA, one of the women featured made less as a teacher than the white janitor who cleaned her school (something like $850 per year; the starting salary at the NACA was $2,000). The discrepancy between what these women had to offer and how their ‘grateful’ nation treated people who looked like them is nothing short of infuriating, and for that reason alone, this book is a must-read.

But the book goes beyond that and celebrates the lives of women who were remarkable by any standards, and even more so due to the fact that they were able to rise far beyond the limits their country set for them. This is a story of exceptional accomplishment in the face of institutional adversity, and it’ll force you to examine exactly what we as a country are throwing away, what we might have had but chose not to, when we do things like underfund schools and condemn children in impoverished neighborhoods to subpar education.

So many times during this book, I had to stop and seethe at how hard the women had to struggle in order to access what they needed to be able to contribute to society. What on earth are we thinking when we make things more difficult for people to access education? And on that note, quite a few times I had to read certain sentences multiple times in order to get the basic gist of what Ms. Shetterly was saying. Math and science were never my thing (hence the book blog and not, say, an illustrious career in a STEM field), but whew, the complexities of what the women in this book were doing every single day were utterly mind-blowing. Man, am I glad that there are people out there who can do that kind of stuff, and I wish our country invested more in education so that the accomplishments of the women of Hidden Figures were without the fierce battle it took for them to get there.

I picked this book up on Friday thanks to the library book discussion group I attended on Thursday (which was AWESOME!!!! I loved it so, so much and I’m already signed up for next month). The librarian who led it was talking about BookRiot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge, and while I’ve normally shied away from most challenges in the past, with the exception of this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy Challenge, attending this discussion gave me the confidence to take on the Read Harder Challenge. If I don’t complete it, that’s okay, and at least I’ll have read some amazing new authors and books along the way, but I’ve got my eye on the goal here. Reading Hidden Figures was my first read for this, and it checks off #6, a book by an AOC set in or about space. I’m off to an amazing start.

Have you read Hidden Figures? How do you deal with the anger and frustration you feel when you read about how our country has treated and still treats people of color?

Visit Margot Lee Shetterly’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical romance

Destiny’s Embrace- Beverly Jenkins

‘Okay,’ I said to myself as I walked through the library. ‘I have enough books at home, I’m going to read a few from my own shelf, I’m not going to check any books out this time.’ And then I walked by the display of books by black authors for Black History Month. And all my resolve went up in a puff of smoke and a blur of motion as I snatched up Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.

In my defense, I’ve wanted to read one of Ms. Jenkins’s books ever since I saw her in Love Between the Covers, a documentary on romance novels and authors and the industry surrounding them (if you haven’t seen this, it’s wonderful). I enjoyed everything she had to say and looked her up on my next library trip. At the time, my library only had her work in ebooks and I wasn’t reading those at the time (long story why, but it involved being frightened of losing my momentum for reading down my Goodreads TBR list), but she’s never fallen off my radar. And now, she’s on it in a big, big way.

The year is 1885. Thirty-year-old Mariah Cooper, the daughter of a mean-spirited, abusive hag, lives in Philadelphia, where she works as a seamstress in her mother’s shop and is occasionally courted by the weak-willed Tillman Porter. When her mother goes too far, Mariah flees to her aunt’s house across town, and within weeks she’s on a train bound for a new life as a housekeeper in California. She’s determined to become her own woman, leaving the browbeaten, unloved version of herself behind for good.

Logan Yates lives and works on the profitable ranch he owns with his loving stepmother and brothers. Sure, his house smells- and okay, looks- like a barnyard, but that’s just the bachelor way, isn’t it? Alanza, his stepmother, takes the liberty of hiring a housekeeper. Enter the lovely Mariah, and she and Logan cannot butt heads fast enough. Each decision to be made is one they can spar over, and Logan can’t stop thinking about his alluring new employee. He’s made it clear that he has no interest in marriage, now or ever…but Mariah may have changed all of that for good.

It’s been a long time since I read a historical romance novel, but this was just plain fun to read. There’s enough steam to make it spicy, but the sex scenes aren’t terribly graphic. Ms. Jenkins’s style never veers into the purple prose I remember reading in the romance novels of my youth; there are no long, drawn-out descriptions of clothing or scenery, just enough to create a crystal-clear image in the reader’s mind of the beautiful California ranch land Logan owns and the finely-sewn blouses and skirts Mariah has created. Her female characters are strong but not so over-the-top that they’re not believable for the times they live in. While this is a typical romance in that it ends happily (and don’t we all need that so badly these days? Heavens knows I do), there are several things that make this stand out, including a scene in which a small parade of local men come by the ranch to propose to Mariah, and another outside a jewelry store, after another woman notices Mariah’s (happy) tears and inquires after her. That one brought tears to my eyes as well. But what stood out most…Let me backtrack a little.

The stigma around romance may have faded a bit over the years, but be assured, it hasn’t left entirely, and that’s something I learned in my own home last night. Upon noticing my copy of Destiny’s Embrace on the kitchen island, my husband squinted at it, then said, “Whose book is that?”

“Mine,” I responded.

He laughed. “That’s what you’re reading these days? I would’ve thought you’d be reading something more intellectual.”

Before I could bean him in the head with a rock like Mariah did to Logan, he left to attend to our daughter, leaving me to mentally scoff, Okay, man who reads comic books.

Which is entirely my point. There’s nothing wrong with comic books, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with romance novels. Not everyone needs to read, say, a calculus textbook at all times; it’s totally okay to read for straight-up entertainment if that’s what you’re looking for and what you need at the time. Reading is reading, and anything that gets anyone reading is a wonderful thing. The joke is really on my husband here, because I learned a lot from this book, including about

  • Calafia, the fictional warrior queen often depicted as the Spirit of California
  • James Beckwourth, the fur trapper and African-American pioneer who discovered the mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas between Reno, Nevada and Portola, California
  • William Leidesdorff, who helped found what became San Francisco
  • Estabanico/Estevanico, one of the first African-born men to reach the continental US
  • Biddy Mason, a nurse and midwife who also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

I never learned about any of those people in school, so if this is what a non-intellectual book looks like, I’ll be over here, buried under a pile of non-intellectual books, plenty of them with Beverly Jenkins embossed on the front.

The other really great thing about this book is that it’s changed the way I think towards historicals, or at least some historicals- or maybe even historicals back when I last read them. I think I’m more willing to give them a chance, and I definitely want to read more historicals by authors of color, because that’s a perspective that I need more of in my reading life. I’m halfway tempted to head back to the library and dig through that Black History Month display again…but I’m going to have to hold off, because today’s library trip yielded another stack of books.

So much for reading from my own shelves, again.

Are you a fan of historical romance? Have you read Beverly Jenkins? If you can recommend other historical romances by authors of color, I’m listening (and scrawling down the names, and checking my library’s website)!

Visit Beverly Jenkins’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.