Not being American, I've never known much about the Underground Railroad, which smuggled slaves from the South into the free states of the North and onto Canada in the 19th century. As a child, I had a book entitled Life Stories of 100 Famous Women that had a chapter on Harriet Tubman, and I can sing that earworm of a song about Dinah blowing her horn as well as the next gal, but I've never had any grasp of the finer details. But I didn't realise quite how much I didn't know until I read Indigo by Beverly Jenkins as the first diverse read of my #WNDBResolution.
Smuggled out of slavery as a child, Hester Wyatt now runs a 'station' in Whittaker, Michigan, where conductors and runaways using the Railroad can rest, eat and receive care before moving on. When an infamous conductor, The Black Daniel, is brought badly beaten to her doorstep, she takes him in and nurses him back to health. He's surly and forward, and she's half inclined to give up on him. Meanwhile, Galen Vachon - as the Black Daniel is really called - is becoming increasingly fascinated by his earnest hostess as his wounds heal and his mood picks up. But there's a price on his head, unscrupulous slave-catchers in the area, a traitor leaking details about the Road and, like a thundercloud hovering over everything, a war brewing over the South's use of slavery.
The plot was really well-developed, but I'll admit that it took me quite a while to embrace Jenkins' writing style. In the first few chapters I found the writing abrupt and didactic, but somewhere along the way I ceased to notice it as much, probably around the same time that I became engaged in the story and its level of historical detail.
I found it darkly fascinating that, in the North where all African-Americans were free and slaves from the South were declared free on arrival, a law was passed whereby a judge was paid 10 dollars if the found in a slave-owner's favour, but only 5 dollars if he backed the African-American accused of being a runaway. Though I knew that societal racism must have continued after the fall of slavery, I naively assumed that kind of institutionalised discrimination would have been largely confined to the South. But I suppose - and this is a really stupid white girl realisation - that's the whole thing about being discriminated against; the system is stacked against you everywhere, not simply where it is most apparent. Just because you don't live in Ferguson, where almost 90% of police violence is used against African-Americans, despite the fact they make up only 67% of the local population, doesn't mean you are not facing racial disadvantage and discrimination on a daily basis.
I did really enjoy Hester as a character. She has the courage of her convictions, only consuming products made by free workers, helping others to freedom as she herself was helped and being a loyal friend and neighbour. She doesn't pay any mind to those who say that, as a single woman, she should not be involved in the Road and refuses to give into some pretty malicious slut-shaming. Galen, raised by his mother's prominent Louisianan Creole family, is also charming and - with one notable exception - respects Hester's equality and ability to make her own decisions. As often occurs in romance novels set during adverse times, it was the minor characters who brought home the horror and difficulty of Black life in the mid-1800s, giving the story a realistic poignancy it would have lacked if it had had a comprehensive happily-ever-after.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I'm very glad to have had the chance to discover it. Hopefully, the other 19 diverse novels I read this year will be just as enlightening. Because, as Jenkins wrote in the Author's Note of Indigo, "knowledge is power, but shared knowledge empowers us all".