When writing historical characters who would have faced discrimination and worse in reality, be it based on race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or other categories, authors have options. Some create a fantasy world like Bridgerton’s, where real-world prejudices are checked at the front cover, but in Freedom to Love, Susanna Fraser joins authors who choose a different path, crafting an HEA for her interracial, cross-class couple in a historical setting with all the warts of the real, historical US and Britain. And boy, is it richly rewarding to watch her do it.
Thérèse Bondurant is one of the illegitimate daughters of a Louisiana plantation owner. She was born free to his multiracial seamstress mistress, and is light-skinned enough to pass as white. Her half-sister, Jeannette, born to an enslaved woman on the plantation, is visibly of African descent and legally a slave. After their father’s death, and in the midst of the British retreat after the Battle of New Orleans, the two sisters have gone to the plantation to dig up the jewelry their father buried to serve as their inheritance. In addition to the jewelry, they find wounded British captain Henry Fowler, and treat him for his injuries. When Thérèse and Jeannette’s relative, now the legal owner of both the plantation and Jeannette arrives, he assaults Jeannette and Henry kills him – thereby forcing the three of them to go on the run. They make for Canada, to secure Jeannette’s freedom and restore Henry to the British. On the way,Thérèse and Henry fall in love. But just when it seems like these two have found a way (and a place) to have a happy ending, an unexpected complication jeopardizes everything all over again.
The complexity in this story is wonderful. Thérèse has practical skills, especially as a gifted seamstress and as the literate member of the trio (this story predates the term, but Henry is dyslexic, something which mortifies him and makes him relieved not to have to marry and produce children he might “burden” with this). It’s Jeannette, however, who is gifted with many of the traits of a historical heroine. Jeanette can ride; Jeanette knows herbalism; Jeannette can attend a birth, etc. It’s so nice to see a heroine allowed to have actual imperfections and knowledge gaps.
I rarely see the white character in an interracial romance make missteps. After Henry learns of Thérèse’s mixed heritage, she catches him staring at her,
as if she were a horse from some unusual crossbreeding and he was inspecting her conformation for signs of her sire’s and dam’s stamp.
Irritated, she tells him,
I am closer in complexion to my father than my mother, and I have his nose and chin. However, I have my mother’s mouth and forehead, and my eyes and cheekbones are like my grandmother’s. She was half-African and half-Choctaw Indian.
Henry blushes and begs her pardon. He realizes he has treated Thérèse as more sexually available than he would have “if only she’d been white and born to married parents,” and vows to be better. It’s interesting to watch Henry move through situations with the newfound realization that being white, male, and an aristocrat (he’s the third son of a baron) has always shaped what is possible or safe.
Speaking of situations, I loved the various settings the characters move through. The historical and geographic research is impeccable (who knew alligators could jump out of trees?), and each of the many road locations is developed convincingly. So, too, are the wide range of people who inhabit each place Henry, Thérèse, and Jeannette move through. There’s Gratien, the free black businessman in New Orleans Thérèse had intended to marry. There are Ben Cutler and Obadiah Wilson, men of the American frontier, and Cutler’s Tennessee Methodist family, who open Henry’s eyes to a world where ability and effort raise a man more than his birth – provided he is, of course, a man, and that the birth was to a married white couple. Henry’s mother is a French émigré and descendent of dukes, who feels as strongly about class as Americans feel about race (and maybe as strongly about race as they do, as well).
Thérèse and Henry’s relationship is a slow burn. She won’t accept being a mistress like her mother, but she cannot marry Henry in the U.S. if she is open about her ancestry (although Thérèse can pass as white, and does to smooth their travels, she refuses to live long-term under an identity which repudiates her full heritage). Henry’s ‘I won’t pass on my disability’ excuse is less original and compelling, but I did enjoy seeing him realize that frontiersmen live full lives with minimal literacy, and that much of his trauma around his issues are from his family mistreating him instead of providing support.
Racism and slavery don’t make for an easy read, so I don’t recommend this to readers in the mood for something escapist. And while this book feels truthful to me, I’m an outsider to Thérèse’s multiracial experience and acknowledge that there may be errors or issues with this book that I don’t know enough to detect. With those caveats, if you are looking for an historical romance that confronts the ugly parts of history head-on, and which shows our hero and heroine walking through them holding hands and with their heads held high – well, I recommend Freedom to Love about as highly as I can.
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