In 1880s Savannah, an African-American girl seizes the opportunity to enter a different life.
Essie has many questions about the life she’s lived with her mother, her “aunties,” and the white men who visit, feeling closer to their cleaner, Ma Clara—but tough as life is, she knows it’s better than the times of slavery. It is Ma Clara who urges Essie’s Mamma to send her to school. When she leaves home for a housekeeping job, her mother furiously accuses Essie of snobbery, revealing that Essie’s father was a white Union soldier. At the boardinghouse, Essie does her tasks and delights in reading books from the parlor. A guest, Dorcas Vashon, takes an interest in Essie, offering her the chance to start a new life in Baltimore. The lessons that will turn Victoria, Essie’s new chosen name, into a member of the emerging African-American elite are demanding. She meets noteworthy figures such as Frederick Douglass, falls in love, and wonders if she can marry without revealing her past. This unique work seamlessly weaves aspects of black history into the detailed narrative. Essie’s desire for a life she can be proud of is palpable; as Victoria, she emerges as a fully realized character, a product of all her experiences. The depiction of Washington, D.C.’s African-American elite is rich and complex, never shying away from negatives such as colorism and social climbing.
A compelling and significant novel. (Historical fiction. 13-18)