Avon, $4.50, ISBN 0-380-77658-8
Historical Romance, 1994
The publication of Night Song by Beverly Jenkins is a pretty significant milestone in the history of romance novels, if you ask me, because it is the first book in the romance imprint of Avon to feature black characters. Avon deserves plenty of kudos on taking a chance on Beverly Jenkins’s debut effort.
Having said that, this one comes off like two different books that somehow end up being published in one volume. The first half is full of tedious romance novel clichés and characters behaving silly. The second half is a very gripping read. These two halves are as different as night and day, it is as if Ms Jenkins was struck by a sudden burst of inspiration while she was halfway writing this one.
The problem with giving a proper synopsis of this story is tied to the problematic first half: for a long time, the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere at all. All the book offers at that point are short scenes of our hero and heroine interacting. Cara Lee Henson and Chase Jefferson are among the first few generations of black folks in America who are supposed to be free after the Civil War is over. Instead, these folks find themselves at the mercy of both Yankees and Confederate folks during the violent years of the Reconstruction. Like many of their people, Cara and Chase have planted roots in Texas during the Great Exodus. Cara is a schoolteacher in Nicodemus and Chase is a Tenth Cavalry Sergeant who happens to drop by one day and finds himself attracted to the sassy schoolteacher.
For a long time, the story is pretty much scene after scene of Chase and Cara behaving like silly people determined to emulate countless silly nitwits that have graced romance novels before. Cara, especially, is embarrassing. She is too reckless to be believed in one scene, taking on a violent man on her own and being fortunate only in that Chase happens to be nearby to come to her rescue. She is rude to Chase without provocation. While at first she’s determined to behave because she will lose her job if her reputation is perceived to be tainted in any way, she is the first to want to get ruined the moment she gets her first taste of third base and gets offended when the hero refuses to proceed to fourth base. And on and on Cara goes, acting like a classic bimbo heroine with no self-control, that I begin to worry about her students.
The second half, on the other hand, is a much, much, much better read. Of course, if I reveal what happened in the second half, I’d be spoiling the story, hence my dilemma here. At any rate, Cara suddenly becomes sensible once she and Chase start interacting on a regular basis, although she is turning out into a randy and insatiable nymphomaniac here. Not that this is a bad thing, really, although the love scenes can get tad too purple for my liking at times. All those “petals”, ugh. What makes the second half works very well are the characters for once behaving like a sensible, smart, and loving couple who talk and listen to each other. Finally, the characters’ romance makes sense, because at this point, they click very well indeed. Also, the story begins to show signs of going somewhere as a secondary character morphs into a villain. While the villain is a classic cartoon bad guy, Ms Jenkins has Night Song building up to an exciting denouement that has me at the edge of my seat. There is good storytelling as well as good loving in this second half, and that’s why this second half is a great read.
What makes the first half easier to wade through than it otherwise would be is the history woven through the story. I’d be the first to admit that some of the history is dumped into the story like a history lecture in progress, but it’s good reading as I know so little of the history in question. What I really like is how Ms Jenkins doesn’t make the history more colorful for effects. She just states things as they are, which makes some of the more horrifying acts of violence against the black folks even harder to read – because they are presented in an understated manner. While the story isn’t too dark or depressing despite some of the disquieting history presented, I find myself pausing in my reading during certain scenes – such as the one where Chase realizes that his child that he had with Cara would be the first in his generation to be free to live, attend school, et cetera – because these scenes have a sobering and thought-provoking effect on me. I like that – I like a story that does that to me.
Therefore, while Night Song has ample debut author flaws, especially in its first half, and therefore won’t come close to being one of the best stories I’ve read, it is nonetheless a most memorable story for all the right reasons. While the second half more than makes up for the very weak first half in my opinion, the book also makes me think and view at the history of America at that time period in a different light. Therefore, I’d heartily recommend giving this book a try to any romance fan who wants to experience a different kind of setting and historical perspective.