A few weeks ago I was catching up on podcasts while driving to my parents and Jeff and Rebecca from Book Riot talked for a long time about romance authors and the lack of diversity in romance. This piqued my interest, and decided to read one of Beverly Jenkins’ novels. I’m trying to read more diversely in terms of author and protagonist (but mostly #ownvoices), and also genre. I’m doing a lot better with #ownvoices than I am with genre, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to combine both.
I also decided to use a Jenkins novel for the prompt “a best seller in a genre you don’t normally read.” And let me tell you, it was difficult figuring out which books exactly are best sellers. Everything says, “Beverly Jenkins, USA Today bestselling author,” but I could never find out which books were bestsellers. So, I went with one of the most recent publications: Forbidden.
Forbidden follows Eddy and Rhine (who apparently was briefly introduced in another novel way back in the 80s) in a booming mining town in Nevada post-Civil War. Eddy is determined to make her way to San Francisco and start a restaurant but finds herself alone and close to death in the desert. Rhine is a scion of respectability and money in town, but he harbors a deep secret. Rhine was born a slave, the result of abuse between the slave owner and his mother, and is now passing for White. Rhine rescues Eddy and instantly feels drawn to her, but in order to be with her he must sacrifice all he has worked towards.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of Jenkins’ writing style, I like how seamlessly she weaves history in with the plot. The last few pages are full of notes and bibliography, so she clearly did her research. I’m also ashamed to realize just how little I know of postbellum history, aside from the highlights featured in textbooks.
You’ve talked a little bit about what draws you to the nineteenth century—why does the postwar period to the end of the century interest you so much as a writer?
There was so much going on and it’s not a typical time that we know about, regardless of what race we are, and I think the more we know about each other the better off we’d all be. And it also has its parallels with the twentieth and the twenty-first century. Because right after the Civil War you had those great gains with Reconstruction—this huge amount of Black men in Congress and representatives through the states, you had the lieutenant governor in Louisiana, you had Black folks in positions of power and businesses and colleges going up. And then when Reconstruction died in 1876, everything started to unravel. You had the rise of the Klan and you had the Redemption period. And lynchings and blood and death and destruction. And folks said we’ve got to leave the South. They moved into places like Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, California. Which is where I set my very first book, Night Song, in one of those Black townships in Kansas.
In the ‘70s you had African Americans retaking their places in Congress and in the Senate and in local elections. So there’s a parallel in us rising and then the ‘90s and stuff started to sort of peter out again. It’s an up and down cycle. Great things happening in both centuries, both bittersweet.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience reading Forbidden and am definitely going to check out another of Jenkins’ books.