Review of Night Song by Beverly Jenkins
Over a decade after Beverly Jenkins’ Night Song was originally published, it was reprinted in 2009 for its 15th anniversary. Since 1994, Jenkins has published dozens of historical and contemporary romances, but Night Song started it all – Jenkins’ career, and a place for African-American romances on publishers’ book lists. Night Song was 13 years in the making. Four years alone were spent on trying to get it published. By the time it hit shelves in the mid-nineties it was one of the first romance novels to feature black characters on its cover. Jenkins’ novels usually take place in little known historical eras of black life. Her characters don’t always struggle with slavery, Emancipation, and the civil rights era, but more often, in the equally extraordinary moments between those milestones. Set in 1882 in the fictional town of Henry Adams, Kansas, Night Song tells the love story of schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, and Buffalo soldier Sergeant Chase Jefferson of the Tenth Cavalry.
Cara Lee Henson is the only schoolteacher in the all-black town of Henry Adams. The school might be run down and under-funded, but Cara still has to follow a strict moral code. If she breaks any of the rules set down by her boss, Virginia Sutton, and the school board, she will be dismissed. A single woman has a hard time earning an honest living out in the West and Midwest, and Cara is determined to stay employed. Without warning, Sergeant Chase Jefferson makes his way back into Cara’s life, putting an end to her mundane, happy existence. Chase can only stay in Henry Adams for 10 days and Cara refuses to be with him. Gallivanting with a man will cost her honour and her job. Sergeant Chase is attracted to her but the wandering, dangerous life of a soldier makes marriage totally out of the question.
Cara and Chase don’t spend the entire novel loathing each other only to suddenly discover that they’re hopelessly in love. Night Song is a slow burn, and though Cara and Chase are attracted to each other from the beginning, there are varying degrees of denial throughout the novel. Sparks fly and heads lock, but both have doubts and fears that keep them apart. Frivolous misunderstandings don’t make their way into Night Song. Jenkins doesn’t confuse conflict with shouting matches.
Both characters are alone in the world and have no living relatives. They are therefore tied to their passions – Cara to teaching and learning, and Chase to the segregated, racist United States Army. Within these passions, rise apprehensions about their romance. Chase reminds Cara of the white Civil War era Union soldiers who destroyed her family and home. Subconsciously she is afraid of soldiers, even black ones. Her contract with the school board only helps to legitimize her fears; so taking on a lover is the last choice she’ll make. Chase has no family, and creating a new one in a post-emancipation America is more than he can bear. A serious relationship would either tie him down, or if he remained a soldier, would tear his heart between his love of a woman and his love of his country.
For all their genuine chemistry and tense conflict, most of it unravels by the third act. While Cara is a sympathetic heroine, Chase turns into a bully by the end. Cara remains spunky, headstrong, kind, and intelligent throughout the book. This doesn’t mean she is without flaws. She can be a harsh, stubborn, know-it-all. Sometimes she openly challenges violent people she could easily walk away from. But at her core is a genuinely gracious woman. Chase, however, forces Cara into a situation that merely internally hints at wanting, but never actually agrees to. It makes his character almost irredeemable and it’s difficult to find him totally heroic by Night Song’s end.
The Midwestern town of Henry Adams is modeled after Kansas towns that blacks established after fleeing a post-Reconstruction South. Beaten down by the racist violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League, and fears that slavery would be re-instated, tens of thousands of these black Exodusters headed to Kansas – one of the newest states in the Union. Night Song also focuses on the history of the Sioux, specifically the Lakota, in the form of Chase’s best friend, Dreamer of Eagles. Dreamer’s nation is being decimated by military action from the United States Army, and those who survive these brutal attacks are forced onto reservations. The army is slaughtering their livelihood – the buffalo. Jenkins’ extreme attention to detail is what separates Night Song from so many historical romances. Many are nothing more than costume dramas, but Jenkins packs her Night Song with rich, fascinating history that doesn’t distract from the story. It helps that Jenkins places her characters in the middle of some of this history instead of the fringes of it. Cara is an Exoduster and a Southerner, chase is a Union soldier and an ex-slave, and newspaper men and scholars populate the novel’s background.
Night Song at the time of its publication was a novelty. It’s less of a novelty now, though black romance (and multicultural romance in general) is more of a contemporary and paranormal game than a historical one. It does drag in the middle, where Jenkins provides unnecessary filler of parties and outings. And its hero is tough to love, but its heroine and its history are at one engaging, fascinating, and difficult to forget.