Despite all the the good reviews and word of mouth from fellow Cannonballers, I was reluctant to start Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union. How can a romance between a black woman and a white man set during the Civil War be anything other than hugely problematic? If this book had been written by a white woman, I wouldn’t have touched it at all.
Alyssa Cole is not white, and she is gaining a reputation for writing historical romances that challenge convention. This is the only book of hers I’ve read, and I would not hesitate to read another.
Ellen “Elle” Burns is a free black woman working as intelligence agent for the Union. She is a member of the Loyal League. Malcolm McCall is a Scottish immigrant and Pinkerton Detective posing as a Confederate soldier. Elle is posing as a mute “slave for hire” in the Richmond, Virginia home of a Confederate Senator. The interesting part of this book is the development of the relationship between Elle and Malcolm. Even if they are working on the same side, Elle has no reason to trust a white man with her body or her heart. Malcolm has the advantage of not having been raised in a culture founded on white supremacy and of being a member of the oppressed. Even so, he has a lot to learn about privilege and the difficulty of keeping promises to a woman so few people see as human. It all happens in the standard romance compressed timeline that strains credulity, and there are far too many coincidences.
I didn’t realize I started this book on Loving Day until quite late in the day. It would be close to a hundred years before a marriage between Elle and Malcolm would be recognized in many states. Despite that, interracial couples fell in love, formed unions, legally or otherwise, had children, and lived their lives.