Before the Dawn

Always and Forever

The Taming of Jessi Rose

Through the Storm

 
Belle and the Beau
by Beverly Jenkins
(Avon, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-06-47342-2
*****
Do not attempt to adjust your computer monitor. There is nothing wrong with your screen. Beverly Jenkins has written a G-rated historical romance. Belle and the Beau is one of the first four historical romances released in Avon's True Romance young adult line. (Other authors in the series launch are Lorraine Heath, Kathryn Smith and Margaret Moore.)

Beverly Jenkins' new romance will definitely appeal to younger readers for whom a spoon full of sugar will help the history go down and to older readers who want a little less spice and a bit more history in their romances. Then there are the author's fans for whom any new Beverly Jenkins romance will be a cause for celebration. They will not be disappointed.

Belle and the Beau is set in the spring of 1859 in Whittaker, Michigan, which is also the site of Jenkins' third novel, Indigo. This story takes place approximately six months before Jenkins' earlier work and a couple of minor characters make an appearance. But, alas, there are no sightings of Galeno Vachon or "La Petite Indigo."

The "Belle" of the novel is Belle Palmer, a sixteen-year-old girl who was making her way out of Kentucky with her father and a band of runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. As they headed North, Belle and her father were separated when their group was set upon by slave catchers in Michigan. When the novel begins, Belle had "come North looking for freedom and found only the freedom to starve." She is frightened, hungry and alone as she continues on in search of a safe haven.

..Folks friendly to escaped slaves hung colored quilts out on their clotheslines; other houses had little Black-faced jockeys out front, and if the lantern in the jockey's hand was lit, it meant fugitives were welcomed. Belle had passed many farmhouses but had seen no such signs.

She'd also committed to memory the secret phrases Underground Railroad conductors sometimes asked to determine if a runaway was indeed who they claimed to be. She remembered all the corresponding answers but couldn't find anyone to ask her the questions."

Belle is just about to give up when she is happened upon by Daniel Best and his younger sister, Josephine. As Belle is coaxed out of hiding, she is surprised to discover her rescuers are Black. And they are surprised to discover that beneath her traveling disguise, Belle is a girl. The requisite phrases are exchanged and the Best children take Belle home to their parents for safekeeping. The first order of business is to get medical attention for Belle's feet that were badly blistered during the walk from Kentucky.

The Bests are members of the local vigilance committee, groups of Blacks dedicated "to doing all they can to protect and uplift the race." The committee promises Belle they will try to locate her father. Belle becomes Mrs. Best's visiting cousin to cover her true identity and slowly settles into the family routine. Josephine - Jojo - is four years younger than Belle. The two bond and Belle, who was trained as a seamstress, teaches Jojo to sew so she can work on her banner for an upcoming visit by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Daniel and his sister have had formal schooling and Belle discovers she has so much to learn.

As the weeks go by, Daniel and Belle are attracted to each other, but Daniel is "practically engaged" to the shallow and haughty Francine Fleming. Eighteen-year-old Daniel is confused by his feelings for Belle and conflicted by a death-bed promise he made to Francine's mother. The elder Bests have taken Belle to heart. However, in her father's absence, they want her to be aware of all the options afforded her by her newly gained freedom.

Belle and the Beau is a heartwarming story that appealed to me despite the fact that I am three-times the age of the target audience. Hopefully, they will be able to appreciate the romance and the rich presentation of African-American history. As with all Jenkins' novels, there is a bibliography for further reading. But the story, with its interesting cast of characters and humor is never didactic. Readers in the 21st century will be able to see the parallels between the 19th century and the present. Beyond the history and the sweet romance, the author has created a story about community values, choices, loyalty, leadership, education and virtue.

I recommend it to readers of all ages.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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