Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden. Bloomsbury, 2019, 257 pages.
Reading Level: Teen, ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 14-up
Judy 12, 1881, Savannah, Georgia: Essie Mirth stands by her mother’s grave, her thoughts darting into the past as the minister’s voice drones through a graveside service. She thinks—desperately hopes—she has escaped that past, but a biracial woman in the postwar south is on precarious ground. One big blessing in her life is Ma Clara, a former slave who has covertly protected Essie from her mother’s white clients—the ones who come mostly at night and creak the bedsprings loud enough for the girl to hear in her attic bedroom. Clara’s interference has cleared a way for Essie to find a job in a respectable black boardinghouse, where she meets and elegant, cultured colored lady named Dorcas Vashon. Miss Vashon sees the girl’s potential and offers to take her to Baltimore where she can be educated to enter the high society of their people. Is the offer too good to be true?
The novel moves at a leisurely pace, with no shocking reversals or high-intensity developments. Though engaging, it could have used a little more dramatic tension, particularly in the relationship between Essie and her mother (Essie comes to an understanding about her mother that could have been foreshadowed more). Still, it’s worthwhile to visit this overlooked period in Black history—the Reconstruction years before Jim Crow and southern backlash. During this period, African Americans, most of them former slaves, made great strides in education, politics, science, and culture. It makes the crackdown of discriminatory laws seem all the more tragic when we think of how different history could have been. But it’s good to revisit this brief flowering of the past, as we pray for a better future. Some characters, particularly Ma Clara, exhibits strong Christian faith.
Cautions: Sensuality (Implications of prostitution in the early chapters, filtered through Essie’s memories. Some kissing in later chapters.)
Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4.5
- Artistic Value: 3.5