Inventing Victoria, by Tonya Bolden
From Tonya Bolden’s Inventing Victoria:
“I have had blessings abundant, my dear. And so many of our people are in such great need. Ever since they hammered the final nail in Reconstruction’s coffin back in ‘77…” Dorcas Vashon paused, shook her head. “So many fail to rise not on account of a lack of ambition, but on account of a lack of opportunity, a chance.”
Growing up in 1880s Georgia, Essie wants more than the life her mother has made there; she wants more than the unfairness and hardship and bigotry that she sees in Savannah on a daily basis, both in person and in the newspapers. She dreams of earning enough money to attend a school for Black teachers; and after that, of opening her own school that would cater to children like her: kids who need a loving adult in their lives, kids who need support, kids who need someone to reach out their hand, to help them rise up.
Enter Dorcas Vashon. She’s Black, she’s rich, she’s cultured… and she sees something so special in Essie that she offers her the chance of a lifetime—she’ll help Essie to move up in society, to share her money and knowledge and connections and even her home—and then, in turn, Essie will use those assets to help others in need. The only catch is that she’ll need to leave her old life—her family, such as it is, and her friends—behind.
Inventing Victoria is an example of my favorite sort of historical fiction: one that’s full of endlessly interesting period (and clothing!) details, references to famous (and less-famous) figures and events of the era, all woven in to create a fully-realized world that you can see and hear and almost feel.
It’s a coming of age story about—in part—a hard, complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter, about how trauma affects parenting and parenthood, and ultimately about a child coming to understanding and acceptance and the knowledge that a parent is a flawed human being, not purely a parent.
And even though Essie’s Mamma isn’t onscreen a whole lot, she is absolutely a three-dimensional force. I was particularly impressed with how Bolden used her situation and profession to touch on the politics and strategy of sex work:
Essie had, of course, noticed that Mamma’s white men had long ago ceased to be sailors, dockworkers, watchmen. They were lawmen, bankers, politicians, doctors, businessmen, and the like. It never dawned on Essie that it had been planned. She had never thought Mamma capable of planning anything.
She also shows the sacrifices Victoria makes to move up in and within society; she shows her picking her battles and she shows her dealing with colorism and classism within an already-marginalized class. She shows how American culture and society took some hopeful steps forward towards equality during and after the Civil War, and also shows the beginnings of the backslide into segregation and Jim Crow.
The backmatter is great: Bolden shares some of her sources, talks about various inspirations, and zooms her lens out to show Victoria’s story—which in the text proper is very much about the personal and specific—more in the context of history and what challenges and changes would be coming after the end of the book.
Next up (or soon, at least!): Crossing Ebenezer Creek, in which Essie/Victoria’s mother figures in.