Today, I couldn't tell you what it was about but at the time, it was so impressive that I chose Singing Wind as my "Indian" name during summer school in the fifth grade. I devoured that book and Zebra historicals with the hologram stickers were special treats. I read about, and absorbed, all kinds of nonsense about the romantic confederacy, happy darkies, noble savages, dirty savages, drunken savages, pretty much every single form of rape possible, caricatures of sing-songy, opium addled Chinese. . . . really any and every offensive portrayal of man, woman, and beast. I soaked it all up and overlooked a lot because I was pretty much only in it for the scrumpin'.
Just keeping it real.
Needless to say, as a tween, my politics were still developing.
These days, I couldn't force myself to read half of the books I devoured as a kid. I had to give up on Nora Robert's MacKade Brothers series because the characters romanticized the Civil War era in a way I found really off-putting. These are Nora Roberts books so you know I couldn't fault the writing or the storytelling. In fact, the characters' thoughts and feelings were in keeping with the setting. The books take place near Antietam, Maryland and there is a subplot that revolves around the ghost of a southern widow. Something about it, probably the absence of any alternate narratives, just raised my hackles. I have a similar response to Gone With the Wind which I thought was bullshit even as a child, and The Help, which I refuse to read on principle.
It seems strange to say it, especially in connection to this genre, but too much historical romanticizing is my book kryptonite.
Romance, particularly historical romance, is pretty white. Your main characters are probably white, straight, and conventionally attractive in unconventional ways. On one hand, that's fine. I don't think historical fiction or historical romance are or should be bound by modern sensibilities. What bothers me is the way many stories are told.
The Boatwright Sisters from The Secret Life of Bees movie
This example isn't a romance but I find it illustrative. While the Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is chock full of magical Negroes with whimsical names, it doesn't bother me as much because at least those characters represent different facets of the black experience. June Boatwright is pissed, May Boatwright is irreparably damaged-and that is important. It's not as one-dimensional.
I also don't mind a little period or character appropriate racism. I just read Lord of Scoundrels by Lorretta Chase and the hero, Sebastian Marquess of Dain, has all sorts of internalized self hatred that results in internal dialogue like,
"The worst was that he couldn’t stop. The worst was that his passionately intent expression had somehow become genuine, and he was no longer talking in Italian about drains, but about how he wanted to unbutton, unhook, untie every button, hook, and string . . . and slip off her garments, one by one, and drag his monstrous blackamoor’s hands over her white virgin’s flesh."
Lines like these may offend some readers but they didn't bother me because I thought it made sense. I understand the self hatred and internalized racism that makes him feel like he is a monster. He doesn't look like his white, English father at all. The darkness of his skin and his Italian heritage have always made him an outsider and a target for mockery as a child. His self-loathing is real. It might be the realest thing I've ever read in a romance novel.
Similarly, another Chase classic, Mr. Impossible, presents a more complex depiction of the European presence in Egypt. The main characters never question the appropriateness of their presence in Egypt or their right to various Egyptian antiquities. They also exhibit paternalistic attitudes towards the Egyptians and other non-European peoples. Both of these things were period appropriate. While the main characters probably saw imperialism as right and in order, Chase's Egyptian characters clearly had different ideas. I would go so far as to say that the supporting characters were also more fully developed than they might have been in other books. They had lives and histories outside of their interactions with the main characters. They had motivations outside of those of the main characters. They were considered and written with some care. In some sense, my personal kryptonite is a version of the wallpaper historical. That is, as defined by Lydia Joyce and quoted on Smartbitches
When servants, the poor, laborers, and working women are wallpaper, I just can't believe in the book. When India, China, the Americas, and the Gold Coast are wallpaper, I just can't believe in the book.
It doesn't have to be that way. The Proposition by Judith Ivory is a smokin' Victorian romance featuring a ratcatcher hero of all professions. It represents the lives of the working class in ways rarely seen in romance. Elizabeth Hoyt and Courtney Milan are two more authors who write great books with great characters that tend to break the mold of what you would expect. The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt gives you a unique perspective on life in the countryside with a commoner hero and a Georgian lady. Milan's entire Brothers Sinister series addresses labor rights, expanding suffrage, academic sexism, gender, race, and ableism. I loved them all but The Suffragette Scandal made me want to stand up and cheer.
We need diverse books, and we also need complex books.