TBR Challenge, The Preacher’s Promise by Piper Huguley

This month’s theme for the TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian is “favorite trope.” My choice of trope was easy–marriage of convenience is easily my favorite, because I like watching a couple that’s stuck together and has to figure out how to make that a good thing. (This type of plot is more plausible in historical romance, so for me the contemporary version is where the couple has to work together to solve some kind of problem or mystery, as often happens in romantic suspense). The trick was finding a book with this trope in my giant e-TBR, in which browsing descriptions is not easy.

After some poking around I came up with The Preacher’s Promise by Piper Huguley, the first in her Home to Milford College series–which I now realize is an actual series following the same couple. It was in my TBR because I read the prequel novella, The Lawyer’s Luck, several years ago.

The setting of The Preacher’s Promise is unusual for historical romance: a small African-American Georgia town during the Reconstruction. The preacher of Huguley’s title is Virgil Smithson, the town’s mayor/preacher/blacksmith. Virgil purchased his freedom before the Civil War, but as a free man he had to leave Georgia and was unable to earn enough to return and purchase his wife’s before she was sold to Alabama and died, a tragedy he can’t forgive himself for. Now he wants to set up a school for his town, and writes to Lawrence Stewart, an African-American lawyer and abolitionist in Ohio, asking him to come. But the letter arrives after Lawrence’s death, and the teacher who comes to Milford is his daughter Amanda, left destitute by her father’s death and bent on escaping his former law partner’s suggestion that she solve her problems by becoming his mistress.

Virgil wants nothing to do with a female teacher, who can’t safely and properly live alone in the teacher’s house. But Amanda is determined not to be sent back. In steps Mrs. Milford, former plantation owner, with a solution: Amanda and Virgil must marry!

This setup could seem implausible and cheesy, but Huguley’s rendering of her characters’ psychology makes it plausible. Mrs. Milford still thinks like a slave owner: Amanda and Virgil will wed under the big tree where the slave marriages she always loved to watch were held. Amanda is desperate (and finds Virgil and his daughter March appealing). Virgil, well, he finds Amanda appealing too. But more than that, he understands how precarious the situation of his new town–a town bearing Mrs. Milford’s name–is. Little as he likes it, he sometimes needs to defer to her and other whites, to be safe, to keep Amanda safe, to keep his town safe.

The tension in the new marriage in convenience is in part a cultural one. Amanda was reared in the North, and “her father’s goal, even when she’d been very young, was to make her visible and not easy to hide away” so she wouldn’t be vulnerable to slave catchers. Now, Virgil wants her to be quiet, deferential, to look at the ground when speaking to a white man. Is her marriage going to be a form of submission, a “vise”? “The war was over and slavery gone, but had she become enslaved herself?” she wonders about her new life and her new marriage.

Virgil, on the other hand, was born into slavery. He has to overcome his shame at his illiteracy and let Amanda teach him. More than that, he has to learn to dream big and trust in his ability to be a leader. I won’t spoil it, but the resolution of the romance’s black moment also involves the town coming together, and has one of my favorite lines in the book: “He was traveling on the trust of the town.”

I really liked the way these characters were so much a part of their time, how their historical moment and personal histories shaped them. Huguley is very clear about the risks that faced people like Virgil, Amanda, and the townspeople of Milton as they worked to build new, free lives for themselves. Faith permeates these characters’ thoughts and way of seeing the world, and I thought Huguley conveyed that without being preachy. (Your mileage may vary on that one; I’m a Christian, but not in this style, and it felt kind of alien but interesting to me).

The alternating point of view is also really strong here: Amanda and Virgil speak differently, given their different upbringings, and that comes through even in the third person narration from their points of view, without over-using dialect. I found some of the writing awkward, though. Here’s an example, when Amanda catches Virgil in what seems to her a betrayal, the morning after they first make love: “Shame washed over her like an ocean wave. Maybe she really was a soiled dove. Virgil was her husband, but then it hit her like an ocean wave, practically knocking her down. Dear God. He didn’t even want her.” Maybe this is meant to reflect Amanda’s confusion, but the repeated waves and the lack of clear connections in her thought process tripped me up, and that happened often enough that I never got fully immersed in the book.

The Preacher’s Promise has a lot of what I love about my favorite trope and really brought the complexities of its setting to life, but the style didn’t entirely work for me.



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14 Responses to TBR Challenge, The Preacher’s Promise by Piper Huguley

  1. Sunita says:

    I had to go back and look at my DA review to be sure, but when I read your post I thought, “that’s exactly the set of responses I had.” And it was.

    Huguley writes so empathetically, and she integrates the history in a way that immerses the reader without infodumping or anything else that screams “look at me, I did my research.” It’s just there, creating the context for the romantic story she’s telling.

    I need to go read something she’s written since (there are a bunch in my library’s Overdrive) because I’m sure some of the writing issues have smoothed out.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      I need to read more of her too, but I am going to recommend A Champion’s Heart because it’s my favorite of the three Huguleys I’ve read. It has some copyediitng errors but it made my best of the year list a couple of years ago.

      • Sunita says:

        Thanks, Janine! I’ll put that one in the TBR. I remember the name and that you reviewed it, now that you talk about it.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I think I have this one….

        • One of the things I loved about it was that the characters (including a group of children) were on a rickety bus, driving through the Jim Crow south in order to migrate north. Huguley made me feel the acute vulnerability and fear they experienced. That’s the kind of thing fiction has the power to get across to the reader in a way that other mediums can’t. Because we as readers have a window into the characters’ hearts and minds. Huguley employs that power better than many writers.

  2. Dorine says:

    I’m so excited to find your review of this book. I’ve had it on my wishlist for a couple years, after an author I follow recommended it. I like the unusual time period and I forgot how much I love the marriage of convenience trope. Like you, I had a heck of a time trying to find tropes I like in my digital TBR just from guessing or reading the blurbs, so I relied on my print TBR instead. This is the toughest challenge for me because I didn’t realize I buy by trope, but I guess I do. Great review. 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Knowing what trope I want is easy for me, and I was sure I had some, but finding one took guesswork and reading online blurbs. I’m glad I finally got to this book!

  3. BookerTalk says:

    I’m impressed you found something to fit that challenging task even of the book wasn’t written all that well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wouldn’t exactly say it wasn’t well written. It was uneven. There were really good things about the writing, too, like the voice suiting the characters. To some extent I think it’s an author not being my cup of tea—I admired but didn’t love this. (I don’t really like “Southern” fiction in general, which is obviously about my prejudices rather than book quality!)

  4. Janine Ballard says:

    Huguley’s style is interesting. She’ll have an awkward sentence here or there, but there are also passages I find poetic, like this one I quoted from her novella in The Brightest Day in my review of the same anthology. Here the heroi is struggling to win the heroine over (the reference to wet circles has to do with her breasts, which are leaking milk):

    “He went to her and embraced her, awkwardly from the side, as if he didn’t know how to hold her anymore. Missouri didn’t move. Didn’t turn her body to him, didn’t respond in any way.

    No use. Didn’t she love him just the least little bit? But if she didn’t want to listen to what he had to say…what could he do? All of his bad luck was hard to take in, even for himself.

    Dropping his arms, he moved to the door, opened it, and stepped through into the steamy late May night, feeling as roasted as the beef in the stew.

    There were times when freedom felt humid. Sticky wet, with a heaviness inside of him, just like the small, wet circles on Missouri Baxter’s shirtwaist.”

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a really interesting example, because I thought some of the strongest writing in Preacher’s Promise were the types of passages I quoted where the characters are connecting their situation to enslavement, or struggling to be truly free. I would not say that Huguley uses slavery as a metaphor. It’s more that she’s using that figurative language to illuminate the condition for readers. Those parts of the book I found really powerful.

      • Yes! I couldn’t agree more. I also loved a bit in A Champion’s Heart where she referenced Langston Hughes’ poetry, and again, freedom:

        “He addressed the wind, since Delie had swung into the bank by herself, moving as poetry could only be read. There were some words written by a young poet that he liked to read when he was by himself. A Mr. Langston Hughes, who spoke about the beauty of the brown-eyed, brown-skinned girl. He could say that poem to Delie. She might like to hear that.

        And then he remembered.

        He used to write poetry. Bad poetry to read to her, way long time ago, back when they were young, free and in love.

        Was there nothing he could do to remind her of that past life?”

        There is also a vulnerability to her heroes that I really appreciate. I wish more of the men in romance were like that.

  5. Also just to add–the other thing I appreciate about Huguley’s books is that they don’t read like anyone else’s books to me. There’s a freshness of them because the milieu isn’t one we see depicted in the romance genre very often, and she captures it well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I agree! Her voice is also quite different from a lot of romance, and I appreciate the risks she takes there. I don’t mean to say that all romance sounds alike, but there’s often a kind of . . . I guess I would say smooth, commercial style that is easily consumable, and Huguley doesn’t do that.

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