Decker Thorne (aka Pont Epine, aka Ponty Pine, aka Falconer, aka slow your nomenclature roll, dude) has always loved Jonna Remington, the woman running Remington Shipping, never mind that she’s like 24 and that’s kind of questionable for anybody running a multi-continental logistics empire, let alone a woman in the 1840s. The problem is that they both have Big Secrets keeping them from each other. Jonna’s home is a station on the Underground Railroad, and if she marries a man, she jeopardizes the safety of her escapees. But ta-da, Decker’s secret is that as Falconer, who is not at ALL a rip-off of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he secretes runaway slaves on Remington ships and whisks them north. Meanwhile, fellow shipping line owner Grant Sheridan (Union generals Ulysses S Grant and Philip Sheridan’s love child, I suppose?) is a well-known abolition activist, but also is Jonna’s unwelcome and harassing suitor, so you will not be at all shocked to learn that he’s a secretly trading slaves, because people cannot be complex.
Goodman did lots of historical research for this book, and I even learned some new things from it. For instance, Sheridan is transporting people from Africa in spite of the 1808 ban on the transatlantic slave trade. I had never heard about this. Although my research suggests that trade between the Deep South, the Caribbean, and Brazil was more common than Grant’s transatlantic route, that trip did continue to happen, and I appreciate Goodman for alerting me to it.
However, that degree of accuracy makes the lack of accuracy about the Underground Railroad a worse failure. The fact that she is right about something odd and obscure raises her credibility, so we mistakenly trust that her portrayal of a more famous area of history won’t be riddled with stereotypes and racism.
But it is. Because at its core, My Reckless Heart is a white savior narrative.
In his piece “Myths about the Underground Railroad,” historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes, “Often well-meaning white people crafted … stories that placed white “conductors” in heroic and romantic roles in the struggle for black freedom, stealing agency from supposedly helpless and nameless African Americans (who braved the real dangers).” And this is precisely what happens here. A safe house, statistically, probably belonged not to white, non-Quaker Jonna but to a free black person like Philadelphian William Still, who for fourteen years coordinated the escapes of more than 800 individuals. The title of legendary conductor is stolen from a self-made and self-freed brilliant black woman (Harriet Tubman; “dope as hell”) and given to Decker, a white male.
And their greatest threat? Not the whites who own and trade slaves or hunt fugitives as bounty hunters or civil law enforcement. Nope, the person working to bring down Falconer’s escape path is Rachel (note no surname), Grant Sheridan’s black mistress.
See, Grant ordered Rachel south to pose as an escaping slave to find and betray Falconer. She goes because she loves Grant even though he decides that Rachel’s escape story should involve desperately breaking out of a pair of manacles, so he creates a convincing wound by HOLDING HER DOWN AND HAVING A DOG CHEW OFF THE BASE OF HER HAND.
(sets table back up so I can flip it again)
(flips it again)
In fairness to the author, and Rachel, it does seem that Rachel was planning to disappear, except her rescue placed her at Jonna’s house where Grant spotted her. But once Stockholm Grant is back on the scene, Rachel goes back to helping him uncover Falconer, which is weird since, you know, she’s a free woman back in Boston and doesn’t really have to do a goddamn thing for Grant.
So Rachel is emotionally abused and physically mutilated AND DID I MENTION she’s posing as mute, because let’s get LITERAL about excluding black voices, y’all. Eventually, she strategically moves paperwork in such a way that both Grant and Decker are revealed to each other, and then gets the hell out of town, where she spends the rest of her life as a pirate queen with a steampunk gadget on her injured wrist that can pop out a shiv or spray whipped cream, depending on what she’s in the mood for.
No, just kidding. She goes back to Grant, who beats her almost to death and traps her, alive, in a coffin alongside one holding Decker. Placing both on the deck of his ship, he tauntingly asks Jonna to pick which one he should kick into the Atlantic. After Grant lets her out and Decker returns to whitely save the day, Rachel is shocked to learn that Jonna and Decker want to spare Grant’s life to take him back to Boston and put him on trial (slave trading, by the way, was a death penalty offense, so it’s not like they’re sparing him – just avoiding responsibility). Rachel hits her breaking point (about damn time) and stabs Grant. But she still loves him, so she cradles his body and sings to him as he dies. Then she commits suicide by flinging herself into the ocean. Expedient, because Jonna and Decker’s love affair with due process probably wouldn’t go so well for a black woman.
(takes axe to table, then sits deliberately among splinters, because discomfort is necessary for growth)
I don’t even know how to conclude this but I guess here are some points for white authors.
- Find out if there were non-white people in your setting. If they were there, include them.
- Once you include them, do a quick read to see if they are flat or 3D, if they are villains or heroes, stereotypes or not. If your only black characters are helpless escaped slaves and a villainess, go back and rewrite. (Make Jonna’s housekeeper black, and the original mastermind who leads Jonna into conducting! Make one of Falconer’s Southern contacts black! MAKE ANYBODY BLACK WHO HAS AUTHORITY OR AGENCY!)
- Also, don’t inflict violence on PoC bodies as a plot device
- If you are adapting actual historical achievements for your protagonists, find out who did them in real life. Do not steal achievements by PoCs and attribute them to white characters.
- If you DO make your white characters do or lead things PoCs did or led in real life, then make them or the narrator talk about or respect the real PoCs.
- If you do NONE of these things, apologize for it in your afterword, and recommend a better book.