The title: Indigo
The author: Beverly Jenkins
Publication: Avon, 1996
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks
I wish - I really, really wish - that there were more romances featuring minorities. And I wish there were more historicals. And I wish they were as good as Indigo.
But there aren't, so I will have to rejoice in how much I enjoyed Indigo. It felt like a breath of fresh air. There was a lot going on in this book that I loved. First of all, it is set in Michigan in the 1850s, a time and place I know almost nothing about. The Civil War is looming in the distance, and slavery is still very much a thing. Hester Wyatt is a former slave who has made a life for herself in the free north. Since the death of her beloved aunt, she has had to survive on her own. What I liked about her is how fiercely independent she is, but still shows cracks of vulnerability. Hester knows her life as a free woman is precarious: slave catchers have been kidnapping freed slaves and sending them back south. Hester could give in to despair, but she doesn't. She has worked hard, scrimped and saved, and denied herself every luxury to remain independent in her own house. Nor has she turned her back on those less fortunate. Her home is part of the Underground Railroad, and this is how she encounters the hero, Galen Vachon.
Galen is from a wealthy New Orleans family, members of a group known as the free people of color. Here again I learned about something I was entirely ignorant of. Galen's family occupies a unique position in their society: they are wealthy and privileged, but because of the color of their skin, they are looked down on by whites. But because of their distinction, they are not really accepted as being true members of "the race" that Hester and other African-Americans identify with.
Galen reminds me a lot of the Scarlet Pimpernel, because he has used his wealth and privilege to help others escape capture. He works for the Underground Railroad and has earned the nickname "The Black Daniel" because of his heroic rescues and legendary derring-do. When the story opens, he has been betrayed and is caught and badly beaten. Luckily he is found and taken to Hester's safe house for recovery.
Of course in true romantic fashion, he's a surly patient and she's a stubborn nurse. But they gradually come to respect one another for the lives both have built. Naturally, there's romantic tension, but Hester immediately senses that she won't be welcome in Galen's aristocratic family. She knows her hands, dyed indigo from her years spent picking dye plants, will forever mark her as a former slave.
I love novels that involve politics, and this one has it in abundance. It was wonderful to see it from the perspective of the African-American community of her time. Some of Hester's friends, including Hester herself, prefer to take a course of direct action by helping runaway slaves make a new life for themselves in the north. Other people in Hester's circle are more involved in the intellectual side of the movement, taking part in debates and reading and writing for abolitionist papers. And some of course do both. But this novel doesn't always dwell on this serious subject, even though there's some pretty heavy stuff going on (including a slave catcher who's stalking Hester). There's also some more lighthearted moments, such as carriages breaking down, making mud pies, shopping trips and fairs. As Hester and Galen's relationship grows, they become more playful and fun together, bringing comfort to each other amidst dark and troubling events. And the ending? I was in tears.
It may be a touch old-school (it was written almost 20 years ago), but there's nothing in here for anyone to object to. It's a fascinating history lesson, a tender love story and an exciting adventure rolled into one. What's not to love?