This is another one of those novels I have been meaning to read in order to branch out, and Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge provided that final push to turn it from a vague intention to a reality.
While Hester’s father was descended from a free family tracing their freedom back to the Revolution, Hester was born into slavery. Her father sold himself into slavery to be with her mother, a slave in South Carolina. Unfortunately, the master he arranged his deal with died only a few years later, leaving his and his family’s happiness in the hands of a careless master who promptly sold off Hester and her mother to different parts of the country while her father died of illness. Hester’s father was able to get a note to his family in Michigan so they knew to be in search of her, which is how she ends up as a 24 year old conductor on the Underground Railroad in her family home in Michigan.
Her beloved Aunt Katherine, recently deceased, found Hester with the information her brother provided but not before Hester’s work on indigo plantations left her with permanently stained hands and feet, leading to the novel’s title and the hero’s nickname for her.
The most recent group of guests includes an unexpected member: “the Black Daniel,” a famous conductor on the railroad himself, severely beaten and stabbed. While the runaway slaves move on to their next stops, she keeps Galen (his real name) in hiding until he has regained his strength and health. Galen knows there is a traitor in the society, and he suspects the traitor is from Whittaker. Once he leaves Hester’s basement and returns to his friends and family, he can’t get “the petite Indigo” out of his mind. Hester similarly keeps thinking about the man she nursed back to health, and the way he made her feel things she never thought to. As the months past, she assumes he has forgotten her or won’t return but soon finds out that the anonymous business man that bought some of her land was none other than Galen, known in the community as the mysterious rich man that recently bought an empty mansion in town.
While Hester is strongly attracted to Galen, she is also very hesitant about pursuing a relationship with him. She preferred the arrangement she had with her fiancé Foster, a relationship based on mutual interests and respect, but when Foster falls in love and marries, she no longer has that excuse to keep Galen at bay. At first, she is afraid of the concept of passionate love, having seen how it affected her parents, and even her aunt Katherine, a woman who spent a good portion of her adult life in love with a man too honorable to marry her because he had left behind a wife somewhere in the South when he escaped slavery. Beyond this, she is also very aware of her own social status compared to Galen’s. Galen’s family may have ended up in Michigan but he comes from a line of rich and powerful New Orlean Creoles, and his grandmother is quite the viper.
While the love story plays a large role, with one or two fewer sex scenes, this novel could just as easily be shelved in the historical fiction category as Galen and Hester attempt to save the community from a slave catcher and find the traitor in their midst. The amount of information and detail was very impressive and educational. While I have read a lot of historical fiction, I haven’t read too much from the perspective of freed communities in the North and I certainly don’t recall hearing about some of the boycotts mentioned in this novel where people refused to buy goods created from slave labor. Jenksins also name drops a few important historical figures, and I quite enjoyed seeing this different perspective on a few of them.
Since I tend to go for the romances involving dukes and earls in regency England, this was also one of the first historical romances I’ve read that was set in the United States so it was a nice change. I mostly liked the romantic couple, though there is definitely a big experience gap between the two, and for some reason it felt even more pronounced between them than in some other novels I read. Additionally, I’ve never been a big fan of sweet nothings whispered in French when I am reading and given Galen’s background, there was quite a bit of “le petite” this and that I could have passed on but that is just a personal quibble. I do think there was a minor pacing issue since the story did move along at a comparatively leisurely rate, and it really gave Galen and Hester time to know each other, only for the traitor part to wrap up super quickly when they finally figured it out. Still overall a good read, though it definitely was much more serious and not as light of a read as many other romance novels.