In a searing historical novel, Tonya Bolden illuminates post-Reconstruction America in an intimate portrait of a determined young woman who dares to seize the opportunity of a lifetime.
As a young black woman in 1880s Savannah, Essie's dreams are very much at odds with her reality. Ashamed of her beginnings, but unwilling to accept the path currently available to her, Essie is trapped between the life she has and the life she wants.
Until she meets a lady named Dorcas Vashon, the richest and most cultured black woman she's ever encountered. When Dorcas makes Essie an offer she can't refuse, she becomes Victoria. Transformed by a fine wardrobe, a classic education, and the rules of etiquette, Victoria is soon welcomed in the upper echelons of black society in Washington, D. C. But when the life she desires is finally within her grasp, Victoria must decide how much of herself she is truly willing to surrender.
Author and publisher Tonya Wilyce Bolden was born on March 1, 1959, in New York City to Georgia Bolden, a homemaker, and Willie Bolden, a garment center shipping manager. Bolden grew up in Harlem in a musical family and loved to read; she attended Public M.E.S. 146, an elementary school in Manhattan, and then graduated from the Chapin School, a private secondary school, in Manhattan in 1976. Bolden attended Princeton University in New Jersey, and, in 1981, obtained her B.A. degree in Slavic languages and literature with a Russian focus. Bolden was also a University Scholar and received the Nicholas Bachko, Jr. Scholarship Prize.
Upon graduating from Princeton University, Bolden began working as a salesperson for Charles Alan, Incorporated, a dress manufacturer, while working towards her M.A. degree at Columbia University. In 1985, Bolden earned her degree in Slavic languages and literature, as well as a Certificate for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union from the Harriman Institute; after this she began working as an office coordinator for Raoulfilm, Inc., assisting in the research and development of various film and literary products. Bolden worked as an English instructor at Malcolm-King College and New Rochelle School of New Resources while serving as newsletter editor of the HARKline, a homeless shelter newsletter.
In 1990, Bolden wrote her first book, The Family Heirloom Cookbook. In 1992, Bolden co-authored a children’s book entitled Mama, I Want To Sing along with Vy Higginsen, based on Higginsen’s musical. Bolden continued publishing throughout the 1990s, releasing Starting a Business from your Home, Mail-Order and Direct Response, The Book of African-American Women: 150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters, And Not Afraid to Dare: The Stories of Ten African-American Women, American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm and The Champ. Bolden became editor of the Quarterly Black Review of Books in 1994, and served as an editor for 33 Things Every Girl Should Know, in 1998. Bolden’s writing career became even more prolific in the following decade; a partial list of her works include:, Our Souls: A Celebration of Black American Artists, Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl, MLK: Journey of a King, Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During World War II, and George Washington Carver, a book she authored in conjunction with an exhibit about the famous African American inventor created by The Field Museum in Chicago.
Okay, this wasn't totally the big magic I was hoping it would be based on the cover (! gah) or the description (period piece! wealthy black people! a piece of history you pretty much never read about, especially in fiction!), but it was still some magic for sure, and I would hand it to a lot of kids if I were still working as a librarian. Where it fell flat was pacing and characterization. I know, I know, that's all a book is, right? But no. There's also setting and plot skeleton and sundry. Anyway, I really love everything about the idea of this book, all the descriptions of beautiful dresses, all the history. But it all feels like an outline for a book, not a book proper. Everything is a bit too simple, with too light a touch. I think one of the problems is that it's written in third person, which is very appropriate for a period piece, but it means Victoria herself seems emotionless, which makes the stakes feel....not high. There was so much room to deal with the sociopolitics of black wealth post-Reconstruction, and I know this wasn't trying to be The Most Complex Novel Ever, and I actually really like that it's written at a younger YA as far as reading complexity, but that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice intellectual complexity. And this book sadly kind of did that. Still, I don't think it will disappoint readers who just adore historical dramas with some romance; I just wish it had done more. That's the problem when we finally start to get diverse books; we have to hang all our hopes on a single title because we don't have enough to let some books be some way and others be another way.
Inventing Victoria is a young adult novel about a time period in American history not often written about, especially in YA. Set in 1880's Savannah, Georgia then Baltimore, Maryland then Washington DC, this is a story about Essie, the daughter of a prostitute - a former slave who "came to Savannah on General William Tecumseh Sherman's famous march to the sea". Essie wants to make a better life for herself against the backdrop of limited opportunities for Blacks in the south after Reconstruction, and is miraculously swept up into the graces of a wealthy female benefactor, Dorcas Vashon, who wants to take her away and turn her into a society lady. Essie accepts and immediately begins her etiquette training in Baltimore before being moved to Washington to mingle with the likes of Frederick Douglass.
Before I begin my critical review, I want to note that I will be purchasing this book for my MSHS library and will be including it on the recommended reading list to accompany our community read of the book that won the Great American Read this past fall - To Kill a Mockingbird. The list will feature #ownvoices books about racism and social justice in the US throughout history, and this fills an important time period and viewpoint void on that list. I will also be recommending it to my middle school teachers as a good choice for historical fiction lit circles.
And now a few thoughts on why this book didn't blow me away, despite its very well-researched tale of a time period and viewpoint so unique to this genre.
While the book is marketed as YA and features a main character in her late teens, it is written at such a lower level that I view it more as a middle grade writing style. That's not a bad thing necessarily, and will make it accessible to a wider range of readers, but it is definitely worth noting. The only thing making it questionable for younger middle grade audiences is the often-referenced prostitution of Essie's mother, but this isn't explicitly written in any way. Just very THERE, and depending on the audience may need some explaining. The book is relatively short, and the terse writing style makes it an incredibly quick read. I could see this fleshed out and made so much richer at double the length with quadruple the character insight and development. Also, the transitions between chapters and flashbacks seemed a bit awkward and stopped me short while reading a few times.
Overall, the book was always very transparent in what it was doing - giving me a history lesson on wealthy blacks in post-Reconstruction middle and southern America. However, typically history lessons in 5 star fiction aren't quite so blatant, and instead are veiled in compelling and addictive storylines that make the reader forget all about the "realness" of it all.
Bottom line: Teachers and librarians: please do buy it for high school libraries and classrooms. ADULT READERS: If you are wanting a short and interesting fictionalized history lesson, read it. If you are wanting a deep and satisfying tale, this one might not be the book for you.
Well, Inventing Victoria is not exciting (it's mad dry and needs some lotion), but it is a good portrayal of some of the horrors/realities African-Americans experienced during the 1800s (blatant discrimination/racial attacks but new triumphs as well).
We don't get too much insight into Essie's head, so this story is more plot-driven. Honestly, I don't know too much about Essie. Besides her circumstances and the shame she feels from her mother, and her love of drawing, what does Essie like or think about? If I connected more with Essie, maybe I would've enjoyed the journey more.
Anyway, in the story, Essie's mother is a prostitute in a brothel house(?) where the uncles "white men" make their nightly visits. Her mother sometimes copes with this by using alcohol to get through it. Now, the uncles pay well (most of the time), so Essie does enjoy the gifts until she learns how they were bought.
[Not a spoiler!; she dies on page 1] Jumping to the future, Essie's mother dies which gives Essie a glimmer of a new opportunity. She gets her own room now (no more sleeping in a closet) and a renewed desire to leave the past behind.
Essie is light-skin. Despite wishing she was as far away from white as possible, her complexion/colorism works in her favor for going up the black elite ladder. She finds her fairy godmother in the lovely Ma Clara and Dorcas Vashon. Can we give a handclap to Ma Clara? YOU THE REAL MVP!
The journey to Essie becoming the high-class Victoria should have been more interesting. I was thoroughly bored and exhausted (just like you, Essie) with the many tasks/trials she had to endure. I really like the growth Essie had from simply wanting to become elite to wanting to give back to her community.
There's some last minute romance that actually, I promise, happens in a span of five pages. "Was this love?" I don't know, Essie you just met him. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I thought they would tease the love interest a bit more and show us a glimpse of him earlier. It's okay though because that's not the primary focus.
On another note, it's a bit awkward when the characters meet Fredrick Douglass. I like to keep fictional characters separate from real people. I don't mind timely references, but I dislike historical figures in fiction stories. How am I supposed to know if they're in character? Haha.
Overall, this book is the perfect blend between Middle Grade and YA. The writing's simple but does not shy away from implications (racial, sexual, violent, etc). I recommend for older kids because I don't think it can keep most younger kids' interest. I loved Essie's mentors and the strained mother-daughter relationship.
Born after Sherman's March, raised in Savannah, Essie wants to be better than her mother, better than her surroundings. Given the opportunity, she becomes the protegee of a wealthy woman who educates her in everything she needs to rise in society. But this means leaving everything she knew behind, even those who helped her to rise.
Don't let the beautiful cover fool you. This is not a polished, elegant young adult book about a young black woman rising socially during the Reconstruction Era. Instead, it's a rambling mess that squanders its premise and strongly resembles the style and substance of the Out West Pioneers story I wrote the summer after sixth grade.
Thematically, this book and my story have nothing in common, but they are both similarly terrible in their inability to harness plot, character, or setting towards any real purpose. This book has a wonderful concept, and it could have been dazzling, especially since it's on such a rarely addressed subject. However, even in the scene where the heroine meets Frederick Douglass, every page remains a snooze-fest. I wish I had taken the advice of critical Goodreads reviewers and passed on this book, but I just didn't believe it could be that bad.
Unfortunately, it was worse. This reads like a first draft, and a terrible one at that. I really liked "Crossing Ebeneezer Creek," this author's previous YA novel, but apparently, even though she can write evocatively and memorably in free verse, she cannot write in prose. Her sentences are proficient, but the story is just a string of lifeless, detached events strung together, with no real plot or character development. Even though the story concept is full of potential for dramatic conflict, the droning, lecturing narrative voice squanders every opportunity. Why dramatize the details and life of a pivotal conversation, when you can just summarize it afterward?
One of my besetting failures in my sixth grade story was my inability to dramatize, and my constant rush through different events, making them even more vague and lifeless in my hurry to get to something with some spark. This reads in much the same way, like the author is impatient with what she is writing and is eager to get on to the next thing. I don't think there was a single dramatized scene in this entire book. Everything is just reported, in the driest and most boring way imaginable.
This is why some people grow up thinking they don't like history, but honestly, the gigantic tome that I'm reading for my current college class on Jacksonian America reads like an adventure novel in comparison to this. It's possible for history to be well-researched and engaging, but this book just name-drops famous figures, incorporates facts, and never even tries to recreate the period with any life or interest. The book I'm reading in class is full of telling details and human interest, but this novel is flat, boring, and utterly lifeless.
Honestly, this book was such a disappointment that I feel duty-bound to post my review on Amazon to preserve people from spending money on this. This so-called novel is a travesty.
This book mostly suffers from me wanting it to be something other than what it was. I thought Crossing Ebenezer Creek was a riveting and important book. I was looking forward to reading a book that explored the time period after Reconstruction failed. I liked that some of the characters from Crossing Ebenezer Creek were in this book, and from a historical perspective it was quite good. It was just so very dry. I wanted to know the characters more and really get inside their head. The vagueness and jumping over time that worked well as a story telling devices in Crossing Ebenezer Creek didn't work as well for the story being told here. I did really like what we got of Victoria. I just wish it had been so much more.
Inventing Victoria tells the story of Essie, a Black teen trying improve her circumstances in the 1880s. Essie's story is told in vignettes that flashback to show her childhood and then jump to the present-day as she receives a once-in-a-lifetime offer from Dorcas Vashon to leave her life of poverty behind and learn to become a lady.
To start with the positives, Inventing Victoria was a well-researched book that did an excellent job immersing the reader in the time period. I learned a lot about how relaxed segregation had become in 1880s as well as the ways in which the gains of Reconstruction were already being eroded. The side characters Ma Clara and Dorcas Vashon were lovable women who left their mark on Essie in different ways. The vignette style made for a fast read even though the plot itself was relatively slow paced.
Inventing Victoria is told from a third-person POV which, when coupled with the vignettes, made it hard for me to get a grasp of who Essie was as a character. Her determination to make the most of the opportunity Dorcas offers her is clear but other than that, I felt like I didn't really know her at all. There were also times when the story focused too much on details -- like all of the fancy dresses Essie gets or the titles of the books she has to read in her lady's education -- that felt like a bit of a slog to get through.
Overall, I really loved getting to read some YA historical fiction set outside of WWII and Inventing Victoria is a neat slice-of-life look at life in the 1880s.
I want to first say thank you again to the publisher for sending me an ARC of this book, I was super interested in this book when I came across the title online and I just really wanted to read it as soon as humanly possible, so thank you to them for making that happen! This is a historical fiction novel (and I was super interested to read it because I love history)!
Anyhow this book centers around Essie in the 1880s. Essie is living in Savannah and she has big dreams but these never seem to match up with what society dictates and what is real for her. Then one day Essie meets Dorcas she is a very rich and cultured African American woman, and she totally fascinates Essie. Dorcas makes Essie a deal and Essie is entered into the life she has dreamed of. Getting new fancy clothes, mingling with the upper class, and being welcomed into D.C. However, just when she is about to have all she has ever wanted and more Essie hits a big snag and has to decide what its worth to have her dreams. I really enjoyed Essie’s story and I thought the struggles and wants she expressed were interesting to read about. I gave this book 4.5 stars on Goodreads.
**This is not a paid review! I just really am thankful and love this book!
(Disclaimer: I received this free book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
There were so many things I appreciated about the story - the setting, Essie/Victoria's determination to move up in society, her relationship with the mother figures in this book - but at the end I was craving a bit more expansion. The story, in and of itself, is one that is well rounded, all ends tied up, a fantastic setting, history, and a main character you can empathize with. While I got a sense of who Victoria was, I never really felt like I knew her. Whether this be because most of the book is about her inventing this new identity of Victoria, I'm not sure. But at the end of the day, I'm not sure what made Essie tick.
It's probably not fair to comment on a book that I am unable to finish reading, even though the reason for stopping is because I just couldn't stay with it any longer-I did look at the end and saw that it was concluding in an even more pitiful way that I would have thought. It's a nice idea, to follow a girl whose mother was a slave-turned-prosititute as the girl escapes her meager background to flourish in society. I couldn't stay with it because the conflict was so slight and uninteresting, then to top it off, her crowning achievement in the end was to marry well. The girl didn't seem to be changing except in a superficial, trite way. The author does have potential in her writing which is spare and close to verse although it lacks the emotional power of poetry. Also, the cover choice is misleading because it looks like a book for middle schoolers (and reads like one too) but is categorized as YA, likely because the mother is a prostitute. Actually, the mother was the most interesting character in the book with her multifaceted, conflicted existence in the era of reconstruction while the girl was pure virtue, (yuck). Or at least that was what I could glean from staying with the story for half the book.
So good! I loved how lesser-known historical figures (Lewis Sheridan Leary, O.S.B Wall, Mary Church Terrell!) were woven into the narrative. My one quibble is the mention of Mary Church Terrell wanting to "earn" a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Oberlin College bestowed master's degrees upon alumni who distinguished themselves in the years following their graduation—it wasn't something that one could set out to earn as we do today.
It started out pretty interesting, then slowly took a downward plummet into boredom. Honestly, it felt like something I would have written as a young writer, full of long descriptions of dresses, weird cuts between scenes, time jumps, and no actual story. There were a few good parts, but the rest was boring. Such a pity, because it looked interesting and the concept could have been done well.
Essie's earliest memories are of a hot bitter drink poured down her throat and cotton stuffed in her ears, then an attic room, Mama's house decorated in red, Mama sleeping during the day and a parade of "uncles" visiting at night, the smells of whiskey and laudanum. By 7 she was begging to go to school but bullied for her unkempt appearance. Taken in by a kind cleaning woman, Ma Clara, Essie finally knows love and kindness. She reads voraciously, everything she can get her hands on, first the "colored" paper and when that gets shut down, the white papers. By 13 she realizes the schoolyard taunts about her mother were right and Essie wants no part of that life. She's determined to better herself and become someone. While her mother might be content to sleep her way to the top, Essie knows the key is education. She takes a job at a boardinghouse where she meets Binah, a bit slow to learn but a good friend just the same. Essie encourages Binah to learn to read to broaden her horizons but Binah decides her brain is too full for more learning. Then Essie meets the beautiful and glamorous Miss Dorcas Vashon who has the life Essie has always dreamed of. Dorcas Vashon offers Essie the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to live her life the way she's always dreamed. Life with Miss Vashon doesn't live up to Essie's expectations. Does she have the patience and strength to wait and hope for something better or should she return to her old life and keep working and hoping and dreaming?
This book is extremely timely. It takes place just after Reconstruction ends. Essie mentions Confederate monuments going up, white police harassing poor blacks in the marketplace and the strict color line she can't cross in Savannah. Sound familiar? Essie also mentions people who should be included in history class but haven't been. There were many prominent Black people in the 19th-century: lawyers, statesmen, writers, philanthropists, inventors and more. Of course Frederick Douglass is a household name and Booker T. Washington is well known but Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall and the others are unknown to me. *sigh* Essie has never heard of any them, aside from Douglass, whose book My Bondage and My Freedom she reads over and over. This history behind the story is fantastic! However, it's too much info dumping. Names are mentioned and people are highlighted but the story doesn't go into depth about any of them and only Frederick Douglass appears in the novel. Did you know there was a Civil Rights Act of 1875?! I was shocked by how less segregated Washington, DC was then compared to what it was when I lived there two decades ago.
Tonya Bolden has written more non-fiction than fiction and it shows. Her research is impeccable, her author's note makes me want to learn more but the novel didn't really do anything for me. I didn't care for the way the story was told. The writing style is all tell and not much show. As much as I love historical fashion, don't just copy/paste a description from a fashion magazine. The same with food. I can read Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management and the rest online. SHOW Essie learning and describe Essie trying some of these foods for the first time. At first I thought this was a novel in verse but it was just a book full of very short sentences and short chapters. It's told in flashback, catches up to the present and then flashback again. I didn't understand that at first and was really confused. Character names are mentioned on the first page without explanation. I did get into the story eventually and was eager to see where it was going. I really hoped that it wouldn't be too YA tropey. It wasn't and it was. I was afraid One interesting thing I noted, possibly to keep the book YA, the slur Essie hears about her mother is never actually written down but astute readers can guess from the beginning who the uncles are and what's going on.
I found it hard to really like Essie/Victoria. I completely and totally relate to her desire for an education and to move up in life. While I had the complete opposite upbringing, I still longed to get out of my small hometown and make something of myself. I still experienced bullying so I did find Essie sympathetic in the beginning. Her feelings about her mother make me not like her very much, especially once Ma Clara explains Mamma's background. I don't remember Praline from Crossing Ebenezer Creek but a quick look at my review tells me how horrific the enslaved experience was for the main characters. I don't actually fault Praline for doing what did to survive. I don't think she was as selfish as her daughter believes. I think she thought she would sleep her way to a better life and eventually someone would take care of her or give her enough money to give her everything she wanted. She didn't understand her daughter's dreams and desire for education but I believe they shared a common goal- to rise above the circumstances of their unfortunate births. Praline, born enslaved and Essie, born to a formerly enslaved woman living in poverty. Really, the story should break your heart. Essie is, of course, a teenager and teens always hate their mothers no matter what!
Essie becomes more unlikable the longer she's away from Savannah. I couldn't STAND that sort of idle, society life. She wants to help her people but Dorcas makes her wait and wait... then the way she suggests helping isn't very helpful. Clubs really? I know that's all women could do in the 19th-century but I'd rather work for a living and help my people. I'd want to go to college and maybe teach but not wait around to get married and socialize with shallow people forming "clubs" as hobbies to help people they aren't interested in being near. I thought that's what Essie wanted, especially when she wants to become friends with Claire and rejects the elite Black girls she's supposed to socialize with. I really like Claire and would want to be like her but even so, she HAS to marry and marry an elite man.
Ma Clara and Binah are my favorite characters. They don't have much but they're content. Ma Clara lavishes all her love and attention on Essie to help Essie accomplish her dreams. Ma Clara knows how difficult life is for Black people in Savannah, especially women and she doesn't seem to fault Praline but she doesn't approve of Praline's lifestyle. Ma Clara is the grandmother Essie will never know. Binah is a sweet, uncomplicated girl. She isn't clever and is in awe of Essie's book learning but is uninterested in learning herself. Given that she was abandoned and has a crippled arm, she's doing very well for herself. She could so easily end up far worse. I love how loving Binah is and how uncomplicated life is for her. She makes friends easily and becomes devoted to them. I couldn't ask for a better friend. I'm not sure I would be brave enough or eager enough to cut all ties to my past.
I'm not sure I like Dorcas Vashon either. She doesn't share her intentions with Essie or ask really what Essie wants to do with her life. She says be patient! Be patient! Miss Hadwick is very tough and seems to have every classic household management, etiquette, cooking book memorized and is determined to fill Essie's head with useless knowledge. I had no idea there was a difference between a butter knife and butter spreader, nor do I care, as much as I really want to live in the elite 19th-century world Essie is training to be a part of, I don't think going back in time and trying it would suit me. It's better not to be smart and just accept your place in society. Clementine, Fanny and Penelope are as bad as the white girls. They create divisions even among Black women and that just isn't right. They judge people based on skin tone and socioeconomic success while sitting around ding nothing more important than needlework.
There is a corny teenage romance in this novel, of course. I'd like the story better without it. Wyatt is sweet and kind. He has big dreams and I admire him a lot. He's not wealthy and has dark skin so the other girls turn their noses up at him. I think he sees Essie/Victoria as someone like himself but he doesn't know ALL of her and that could cause problems.
This book is important to read, especially now, but I wish the author had just written some non-fiction books expanding on the author's note.
Content/Trigger warning Strong hints that Essie's mother is a prostitute and wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Essie is never assaulted or raped but she does receive looks and at school, two boys tried to make off with her, presumably to have their way with her, but she screamed and was rescued by her teacher.
I read an ARC from Bloomsbury YA via NetGalley. I read Crossing Ebenezer Creek and found it really compelling. Had I not read Tonya Bolden before, I might not have picked this book up based on the cover. I wouldn’t normally read something about high society. However, I knew I liked Bolden’s storytelling and this book did not disappoint. You don’t have to have read Crossing Ebenezer Creek first, but if you did it’s nice because this book takes place after those events and lightly includes secondary characters from Sherman’s March that we met in that book. Essie is young black woman in 1880’s Savannah. She struggles living with her mother and has found solace in Ma Clara who looks out for her and helps her find good work in a boarding house away from her mother. While working at the boarding house a black woman of culture makes Essie an offer she can’t refuse to make a new life for herself.
Essie’s education is ripe with people of historical significance, which is educational for the character and the reader. She meets people like Frederick Douglas. The story started out a bit disjointed with flashbacks, but once past the first quarter of the book it found its rhythm and I was fully invested in joining Essie on her journey. She is a fiercely determined and an engaging character that faces challenging decisions. This is an interesting look at post-Reconstruction America prior to Jim Crow Laws. Short chapters make for rapid page turning. Some romance. Don’t judge the book by its cover. This is good historical fiction for teens and adults alike.
I enjoyed this book in the beginning, but I ended up just getting extremely confused the more I read it. The transitional period between her lives just felt like a blur and if there was no structure, and the teachings she had really felt rushed.
Overall, though, the story was amazing. I began to connect with the characters and her story, and I ended up loving her through it all. I think it plays an important role in teaching students what it was like to live during this time as a black woman, and I could see it being used as a teaching tool in my classroom- more likely middle grades more than high school.
very compelling read about an era in history I know almost nothing about! I really love when a book highlights a little known period or part of history. The reference guide at the end is of particular note int his case; I'm glad to know the author took the work seriously, and has directed us to places to learn more.
I found the flashbacks at the beginning very captivating; I think I read the first 100 pages in one or two sittings!
Inventing Victoria initially intrigued me, and I read the first 30 pages in one sitting. However, as the story progressed, I started to lose interest. I think "Victoria" started off as a strong character but slowly descended into a superficial character. I ended up cutting my losses halfway through and put the book down. Too bad because I thought it had so much potential.
I feel like there was so much potential here and it all just came to nothing. What a bummer! The story was good, the quality of research was so high, and I really loved reading about a side of history I don't often read about. However the writing just didn't work for me.
This is a ~young~ teen book, probably middle grade at the highest. It feels so young in both language and story telling. It's also told in a timey-whimy way, flip flopping sometimes from past and future. That didn't really bug me, but it was rather hard to keep track of when we were. The one thing that I found really annoying though, was that the writing made the story lack any sort of emotional depth. The book would take us right up to a great moment, then the next chapter would start by describing what happened in that great moment in a vague past tense. It just resulted in no actual emotional investment from me. Another reviewer described it as reading a detailed outline rather than a completed book, and that's what it felt like at parts.
Perhaps if it had been aimed for an older audience I might have enjoyed it more. I have found lately that there are very few middle grade books that I really love anymore - which is fair, since I am not the target audience!
This historical fiction story tells about Essie, a young black girl in Savannah, in the 1870s and 1880s. Essie's mother is a prostitute who came to Savannah on Sherman's March to the Sea. The first few chapters tell about Essie's childhood being hidden in closets when her "uncles" came to call.
Essie was befriended by a cleaning woman who convinced her mother to send her to school. While she learned to read, she eventually left because of bullying by those who looked down on her because of her mother's profession. She relied on the cleaning woman - Ma Clara - for emotional support and to learn to take care of herself. She depended on books she found at a second hand store to continue her education.
When she was fourteen, she found a job at a boarding house and fell out with her mother. She was given the opportunity by a visitor to the boarding house to change her life. Dorcas Vashon offered to give her a new life if she was willing to leave her past behind. Because she wanted to better herself and find a purpose in life, she took the offer. Part of her new life involved a new name and, at sixteen, she became Victoria.
The story details all the things she had to learn and the books she read while learning to become a member of Washington, D.C.'s elite black society. She really did change her life as she learned those things. The lists of the books she read was daunting. She needed to learn how to fit into a society the paid attention to art, fashion, and etiquette. She got so involved that she almost lost her original purpose of making things better for her people.
It was realistic, but disappointing, that she needed to find a husband to realize her dreams. It was also difficult to know that this was the period before the rise of the Jim Crow laws when the small gains earned by blacks after the Civil War were going to be wiped out. I would be curious for the author to write more about Essie's (Victoria's) life.
I think Inventing Victoria is a case of a really great concept with a mediocre execution. The story follows a young black woman raised in poverty who is given the opportunity to reinvent herself and join black high society in Post-Reconstruction America. It is chock full of black history from that era, highlighting key events and figures often left out of textbooks. It's the sort of thing that could be great as assigned reading for a high school history class (and would add some much needed dimension to the curriculum!). Unfortunately, the overly didactic narrative and heavy emphasis on unnecessary description cause it to be rather dull as a novel.
Essie/Victoria is compelling as a character, as is her journey toward self-betterment, purpose, and love. But while we get bits of that, it all takes a backseat historical information and detailed accounts of things like clothing, fabric, table settings, etiquette, and architecture. All of which could have added color and interest to the narrative if deftly woven in, but the application is very heavy-handed and it reads like an odd blending of textbook and fictional narrative. Again, this sort of book certainly has its place in terms of educational value, but I found myself skipping over unnecessary passages and wondering why the interesting relational parts (like the beginning of a romance) are given such short shrift.
So while I am very much in favor of elevating black history in this period and like what the author is trying to do, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this as an enjoyable read. I think if you are looking for a way to learn more about this period without reading nonfiction, it is a good option. I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Set in the 1880s, this novel explores the world if Essie, a young African-American woman who grew up with a neglectful mother and was rescued from poverty and prostitution by a kindly cleaning woman. Determined to keep learning even though she left school at an early age, Essie continued to read everything she could get her hands on. While working at a boarding house, Essie meets Dorcas Vashon, a wealthy African-American woman who sees potential in Essie and offers her a way to transform her life. Taught etiquette and new manners by Dorcas over several grueling months, Essie becomes Victoria and takes on the persona of Dorcas’ niece. As Victoria enters the social elite in Washington, D.C. she must hold to the lie that she is living until she can’t manage it any longer.
Bolden captures a period in American history that is rarely seen in books, much less teen novels. It is the period after Restoration gave African-Americans new rights but before the Jim Crow laws came stripped them away. It is a dazzling time to be a member of society and Bolden gives us details about the books, the manners and the dresses that make up that world. The setting of Washington, D. C. society is beautifully depicted as well.
Essie/Victoria makes for a wonderful set of eyes to view this world through. While she is taken with her new lifestyle and the opportunities it brings, Essie wrestles with the lies she must tell to keep it that way. Her strength of character is particularly evident when she is pressed such as learning etiquette and at the end of the book when she must make a moral decision. It is then that Essie fully steps into her own.
A fascinating look at a neglected piece of American history. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
So in the beginning, I was kind of frustrated with the back and forth flips to the past. I was very confused because it first almost started sounding like I was reading a poetry book and almost a novel. The words were strong and I had a hard time placing where we really were in the story. Eventually, I got the hang of what was going on. I will say this book has a great character development, but I felt that that’s what the book was mostly about- a rags to riches story for one person. I did like how the character had a unique background, as it made her a different kind of person in society. I wish the author had included more about Victoria’s exchange with Frederick Douglass. I felt that her conversation with him was brief, not that impactful, and could have been left out. I kept hoping to see more of what Victoria would have established in later years- her home for children in need of help. However, I will say that there appears to be more books by the author, so maybe she further elaborates there. I did like the story, but I just felt like I was watching a girl who grew up in a rough spot go to an affluent society and marry a guy. Victoria in my eyes was supposed to be this strong, smart, and independent woman who was going to make big changes in the world. Yes, she did get out of a tough spot. However, I’m waiting to see what will she give back to the community.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
It took me a little while to get into this book and understand and appreciate the writing style, but once I did I enjoyed it. It's a quick read. The descriptions of food, clothes, books, etc. are beautiful but neither the world nor the characters are really fleshed out, but I found that I didn't really mind because it was on purpose and not what the author was trying to do. It's an accessible historical fiction book for teens.
Whether you like the stream of consciousness style or not I would recommend this book because it covers a topic and time period that isn't as well known. In 1870s Savannah, Essie lives with her mother, a prostitute, who was born into slavery and traveled south on Sherman's March. Through luck, determination, and the kindness of strangers she is able to make a better life for herself as Victoria first in Baltimore and then in Black upper-class Washington DC. She has to leave her past and family behind to become an educated socialite. I enjoyed reading about the window of Reconstruction after the Civil War and before the racist backlash of Jim Crow laws where there was a culture of Black wealth and power in the south. I hope there will be more books about this time period.
MAYBE: From goodreads review: "...#ownvoices books about racism and social justice in the US throughout history, and this fills an important time period and viewpoint void on that list. I will also be recommending it to my middle school teachers as a good choice for historical fiction lit circles.
And now a few thoughts on why this book didn't blow me away, despite its very well-researched tale of a time period and viewpoint so unique to this genre. Overall, the book was always very transparent in what it was doing - giving me a history lesson on wealthy blacks in post-Reconstruction middle and southern America. However, typically history lessons in 5 star fiction aren't quite so blatant, and instead are veiled in compelling and addictive storylines that make the reader forget all about the "realness" of it all."
Disappointed at the wedding being the end of our story. More focus on Victoria's drive to start mother's helpers instead of her drive to be romanced and clothing descriptions.
"Don't judge a book by its cover", is an English idiom that describes this book perfectly. This story is about the mixed race daughter of an African American woman - former slave, single mother, and lady of the night.The story takes place during the 1880s, post America's Reconstruction Era. The story begins in Savannah, Georgia. After moving to Baltimore, Maryland the main character gains an opportunity to enter into an environment where she can expand upon her education, benefit from a stable economy through sponsorship, live her fantasy/impossibility of being a lady of high society, and submerge herself into African American culture, scholarship, and movements of the time period. The main character then moves to Washington, DC and changes her name to Victoria - a name that resonates grace, humble sophistication, simple elegance, and silent victory. All in all, it is my opinion that she also abandons her Mother. She is granted a new last name and back story that allows her to move up in the ranks and social circles of the African American elite.