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.