Belle and the Beau

Josephine & the Soldier by Beverly Jenkins
(Avon, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-06-001220-X
Josephine and the Soldier is the sequel to Beverly Jenkins’ Belle and the Beau. It is part of Avon’s True Romance line. The imprint, launched last spring features historical romances for readers 12-18.

Josephine and the Soldier returns to Whittaker, Michigan in 1864. Much has changed in the five years since the events of Belle and the Beau. Belle Palmer and Daniel Best have married. Daniel, his father and father-in-law are part of the colored troops fighting “Mr. Lincoln’s war.”

The women of the Best household, use their skills to earn money while the men are away. Belle works as a seamstress in the area. “Jojo” Best, the pesky little sister of the earlier novel has evolved into Miss Josephine Best. She has completed her studies at Oberlin. She has continued her interest in hairdressing and has established a local shop. Her loyal clientele is growing.

Like other women of Whittaker, the Bests also are doing their part to support the war effort. They are part of the Free Produce Movement and boycott all goods made by slave labor. Mrs. Best is a much sought after speaker for abolitionist causes. And, like their neighbors, they offer support to wounded soldiers and veterans. They read and write letters to and from loved ones. They entertain the men by playing musical instruments and reciting poetry. They also offer smiles and listening ears.

It is during the weekly after-church visits to the soldiers that Josephine catches the eye of George Brooks. He begins to pursue her and she is flattered by the attention. Later, Adam Morgan, a family friend, returns wounded from the war. He, too, is attracted to Josephine. He is also conflicted by his ongoing relationship with the Best family as Daniel’s best friend and his feeling for the new JoJo. Josephine, who has had no time for courting, finds herself with two willing suitors. Whom will she choose?

Older romance readers may find the plot and relationship between the two main characters enjoyable, if not somewhat predictable. After all, this is not a full-bodied Beverly Jenkins’ adult romance. “Less experienced” readers in the target age group are more likely to embrace the novel’s development as fresh and free of the dark drama that often accompanies contemporary young adult fiction.

Like Belle and the Beau, this Jenkins romance will appeal to younger readers for whom a spoon full of sugar still helps the history go down. The book provides a painless opportunity for readers to compare and contrast the 19th and 21st century. The ideals and actions of some of the African-Americans characters presented here during the 1860s and the Civil War mirror those that re-emerged during the 1960s and the Vietnam War and gave rise to the Afrocentric celebration of Kwanzaa. Beverly Jenkins’ sweet historical romance provides a backdrop for discussions about unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, creativity, faith and purpose. At its core Josephine and the Soldier is a tale of the value of community, friendship, education and virtue. However, the author’s light narrative is never text-bookish or preachy. Unfortunately, the bibliography of sources for further reading - a staple of Beverly Jenkins’ work - is missing from this book. It’s a glaring oversight that will lessen the total reading experience for those new to the author’s romances.

For young and older readers, the story helps dispel many misconceptions about the African-American life during the 19th century and about role Blacks played in the abolitionist movement and in the Civil War. The roles and attitudes of African-American women during this period are also deftly examined. Josephine and her brother both studied at Oberlin College. (The Ohio institution was an important part of the abolitionist movement and was the first U.S. college to admit women and African-Americans.)

Josephine and the Soldier is a worthy successor to Belle and the Beau. I recommend it.

--Gwendolyn Osborne

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