By Beverly Jenkins
In the time of plague, nothing soothes like a love story, as the blockbuster success of “Bridgerton” on Netflix reminded many of us. But the disconnect between the multiracial streaming series and its monoracial literary source material also highlighted the limitations of that particular romance novel subgenre. White Regencies are only part of romance, but for many they represent the ultimate escape (if you can set aside the ugly realities underpinning them).
For those who hesitate to delve into African-American historical romances for want of that visceral fantasy element, Beverly Jenkins’s novels — richly grounded in history and yet bristling with joy — are a revelation. They feature Black people supporting and loving one another with heat and abandon regardless of circumstance; fiercely independent Black women who are adored; an ethos of Black solidarity and liberation; and a sophisticated appreciation for the nuances of class structure. While her protagonists are Black or multiracial, they’re diverse in other ways: A Jenkins heroine might be a doctor (“Vivid”), schoolteacher (“Rebel”), seamstress (“Destiny’s Embrace”) or courtesan (“Destiny’s Surrender”). Pilar from “Destiny’s Captive” is a gun-running revolutionary and a pirate.
The signature elements of Jenkins’s work come together in spectacular form in “Wild Rain,” a boldly feminist narrative about a female rancher. “Wild Rain” is the second in the Women Who Dare series. In the first, “Rebel,” Valinda Lacey defied the Klan and some Black elites in New Orleans to start a school for formerly enslaved people and their children in the aftermath of the Civil War. In “Wild Rain,” Spring Lee defies family and societal expectations by running her own horse ranch in Wyoming Territory, where women in the United States — white and Black alike — first gained the right to vote.
[ Read an excerpt from “Wild Rain.” ]
Spring is the type of romantic heroine who firmly resists both traditional feminine roles and the touchstones of a conventional life and means it. Neither marriage nor children hold any appeal, and she won’t be swayed from that position. Her view: “I have land and horses. I’m content.” As for the security concerns of being a woman on her own on the frontier, when Spring says she can take care of herself, she means that, too. She sleeps with a Colt Peacemaker by her side at night, and her gun belt is a constant accessory in the day. But when she spies an abandoned horse on its own and “a hatless, snow-covered man slowly limping his way up the road,” she doesn’t hesitate to offer assistance and open her home. The half-frozen stranger is a journalist, Garrett McCray. He’s come to town to write about her esteemed brother, but it’s Spring who captures his attention.
Garrett is the rarest of Black romantic heroes: the cinnamon roll. In historical romances, Black men are rarely afforded the space to be soft, sweet and supportive heroes who dote on their women and don’t mind when they take the reins (literally, in this case). But Garrett is all of those things and it never diminishes him. The way he cares for, loves and stands up for Spring while also knowing when to stand down only makes him more appealing. She rescued him first, but there’s also a pivotal moment when he comes to her aid in a dispute with a white man, and they both know it’s at great personal risk. Afterward she confesses, “Sometimes a girl gets tired of fighting alone.” Watching her lean into loving him and vice versa is pure pleasure, a powerful, indulgent treat.
“Wild Rain” showcases Jenkins’s talent for writing intriguing individual stories that illuminate bigger historical themes. Her protagonists navigate a delicate combination of internal and external threats that stem from or are worsened by larger social forces. Racism, misogyny and the patriarchal power structure have all shaped Spring. Similar forces influence the challenges she and Garrett face as a couple. Their relationship plays out parallel to a story about an investment scheme and an enemy from Spring’s past. These threats underscore the fact that Black people have a limited ability to keep one another safe in the face of an inequitable system, even in the relatively progressive Wyoming Territory. Their concerns and how events play out seem both historically accurate and eerily familiar.
With so much going on, and a pace that propels the reader relentlessly forward, some things get short shrift. Love arrives rather quickly and abruptly for one of the characters. And, outside of a few long-running grudges, some of the conflicts resolve too easily. Still, if “Wild Rain” doesn’t quite rise to the heights of Beverly Jenkins masterworks like “Indigo” and “Forbidden,” it is incredibly satisfying in its own right.