Although romance novels may be best known for fantasy and extravagance, they can also take on real-life issues, from the domestic to the political. This month, a single romance anthology shows how well the genre can speak to important matters in our past and present.
Daughters of a Nation, from authors Kianna Alexander, Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart and Piper Huguley, is a powerful, timely anthology of historical romance stories featuring black suffragettes. Each of the stories in this self-published book offers an important moment in American voting history and the brave women who fight tirelessly for change and win love in the balance.
Hart’s “In the Morning Sun,” set in the Reconstruction era, tells the story of Madeline Asher, who heads for Nebraska after a brutal attack, committed to teaching freed men to read and write and fight for the vote. She does not expect her long-lost love, Union veteran James Blakemore, to appear, scarred but alive. This is an emotional tale of an interracial couple separated by war and reunited in a battle of a different kind, changed but still perfect for each other — and strong enough to stand together in their passionate fight for civil rights.
The heroine of Huguley’s “The Washerwomen’s War” is Mary “Maime” Frances Harper, daughter of the real-life abolitionist and suffragette Frances Harper. Maime is fighting for rights and fair pay for black washerwomen in 1881 Georgia. She vows never to become a minister’s wife — a vow she reaffirms after she re-connects with the handsome Rev. Gabriel Whitman, a man she has scorned once before and who now warns against her impassioned work to aid workers in their strike. Of course, heroines do not back down, and Gabriel soon finds Maime and her fearless advocacy irresistible. Huguley — a beloved voice in inspirational romance stories — paints a beautiful portrait of love, faith and politics.
“A Radiant Soul” by Alexander is set in 1881 North Carolina, where heroine Sarah Webster is visiting from the Wyoming Territory. In the West, Sarah was a vocal and public advocate for women’s suffrage, a detail she keeps from her family and friends back east. At first glance it seems that she is the perfect match for Owen Markham, who is working with Sons of the Diaspora to enforce the 15th Amendment. The two are immediately drawn to each other and then are quickly at odds: Owen believes that the fight for women’s suffrage distracts from the work of his organization. What ensues is a thoughtful look at politics and passion and the frustration that can arise when the two fail to coincide.
The stunning “Let Us Dream” is the capstone of the anthology — a meditation on gender, race, sex, immigration and bias that, despite being set in Harlem in 1917, easily echoes the political and social climate of today. Cole’s heroine, cabaret owner Bertha Hines, is willing to do almost anything to ensure that the men of New York give women the right to vote, including using her cabaret to tempt them into doing the right thing. When she hires chef Amir Chowdhury, a Muslim Indian immigrant disillusioned with the American Dream, the two are soon working together to protect themselves and their future. Cole seamlessly layers powerful, relevant issues — feminism, race, sexual politics and social justice — with deft storytelling. Bertha and Amir are beautiful, brilliant people who are attracted to each other on all levels, which makes the romance sexy, smart and incredibly scintillating. “I love it when you talk unionizing and naturalization,” Bertha says to Amir at one point. So will readers.
Sarah MacLean reviews romance novels monthly for The Washington Post. Her most recent book is “A Scot in the Dark.”
By Kianna Alexander, Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, and Piper Huguley
Self-published. 360 pp. $4.99