A Texas homestead inspires a debut historical romance about the interracial couple who originally settled there in the 1800s.
Sylvia Hector is born in Africa, the daughter of a queen and king, marked with an auspicious symbol of a blessing on her head. Shortly afterward, her parents are kidnapped by Portuguese “stealers” who transport them to America on a slave ship. Neither parent survives the voyage, but Koko, a mother onboard, adopts Sylvia and raises her as her own. Sylvia leads a relatively stable life since Koko is purchased for domestic work in Albany, New York. Sylvia is even educated alongside the family’s son. Meanwhile, John F. Webber of Vermont is working as a sales representative for “Debtor Furniture,” which is manufactured at the state’s debtor prison, when he travels to Albany to purchase lumber. He is taken with Sylvia’s beauty and intelligence, and they quickly begin courting. When he seeks to return to Vermont with her, the community brands their interracial relationship as an “immoral dalliance” involving a woman whose social status is that of a slave. Once Sylvia becomes pregnant, the couple decide to move somewhere they can be together without judgment, which means relocating outside the borders of the United States to the Texas Territory and building a home and settlement on what will become known as Webber’s Prairie. They will have 11 children and eventually wed in a ceremony, marking the first 19th-century mixed marriage. As the Texas Territory changes hands and wars are fought, the family survives and prospers. Kemp is the pen name of a husband-and-wife writing team. The authors drew inspiration from their Texas property’s notable history to create the novel’s promising premise. The opening passages recounting Sylvia’s birth and her parents’ deaths are emotionally powerful. And the book delivers rich details about the Webber family’s involvement in key historical events. But the tale sometimes reads more like a history lesson than a sweeping literary drama. The Webbers’ movements would be easier to follow with the inclusion of maps. In addition, the dialogue is often wooden and frequently utilizes distracting dialects. At one point, Koko tells Sylvia: “Oh, chil’, your mama was like da queen a’ Sheba. She loved ev’erbody an’ ev’erbody love her. But mos’ of all, she loved you more than anythin’ or anybody in the whole world.”
An intriguing but uneven tale about two significant historical figures.