There are things Beverly Jenkins does really, really well, and two things that I like much less about her work, that were all evident first when I read Topaz and appeared here in Indigo. So let’s get this compliment sandwich going!
This book is about Hester Wyatt, a freed former slave and operator on Michigan’s Underground Railroad. She’s decidedly non-romantic after seeing how passion and love led her father to take on the shackles of slavery to be closer to her and her mother, only to have all of them end up separated from each other in the end. Engaged to a very tepid, practical man and in a much more consuming relationship with her work, she was certainly not expecting the attraction and infatuation that developed between her and Galen Vachon, also known as the Black Daniel, while sheltering him from slave catchers. Though Vachon eventually takes leave of her after recovering from injuries sustained while he himself was conducting on the Railroad, he can’t seem to leave her behind for too long.
I continue to be enamored of Beverly Jenkins’ heroes. They are wry, masculine without being domineering, loyal, purposeful, and proactive. Vachon is a rake of this mold: sensual but considerate, he impresses the inexperienced Hester with his prowess without intimidating her. The flipside of that are her heroines — or at least the ones I’ve met. Hester is independent, to be sure, but for much of the story she rebukes Vachon in one manner or another not out of any lack of interest, but because she just doesn’t want to accept how important he is to her. Even once her previous engagement is (at first, amicably) dissolved, her phobia of true romance is a stubborn, irrational wall that is trotted out as weak justification for her resolution to never marry Vachon — she’s just fine marrying, just not marrying HIM, because she knows he’s close to her heart.
Despite this flakiness from the heroine, which in most instances would really turn me off, Indigo has a very strong b-plot which can be independently enjoyed as a complete historical fiction story. This is another element that Jenkins excels at, and — I suspect — a big reason why Indigo made NPR’s 2015 Top 100 romances list. Without going into too much detail, there is a threat in Hester’s community that is undermining the progress of the Railroad, so Hester, Vachon, and others are trying to quietly find out who the mole might be so they can get back to business without the increasingly common and sinister threat of slave catchers lurking around. This story is very compelling and well-paced, with factual anecdotes thrown in about actual events happening around the time that would have impacted the abolition movement and working of the Railroad.
Overall, I enjoyed Indigo despite wanting to shake Hester. Unfortunately, I again didn’t click with Jenkins’ prose, which strikes me as being very straightforward and grammatically correct at the expense of any kind of lyricism or authorial style. This was especially pronounced listening to the book on audio, as reading the simple style out loud gives it the cadence of a children’s book. But I’m being pedantic, and this is still a good book.