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.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||13 Years|
About the Author
Tonya Bolden is a critically acclaimed award-winning author/co-author/editor of more than two dozen books for young people. They include Crossing Ebenezer Creek, which received five starred reviews; Finding Family, which received two starred reviews and was a Kirkus Reviews and Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year; Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl, a Coretta Scott King honor book and James Madison Book Award winner; MLK: Journey of a King, winner of a National Council of Teachers of English Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children; Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty, an ALSC Notable Children's Book, CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, and winner of the NCSS Carter G. Woodson Middle Level Book Award. Tonya also received the Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC's Nonfiction Award. A Princeton University magna cum laude baccalaureate with a master's degree from Columbia University, Tonya lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
BROODING, WINDSWEPT SKY
"For as much as it has pleased Almighty God to take out of this world the soul of ..."
As Essie stood beneath a brooding, windswept sky there was a twinge of guilt over being dry-eyed.
Another emotion quickly took hold as the bewhiskered, bucktoothed Reverend Zephaniah McElroy droned on.
The past was snatching Essie back.CHAPTER 2
SAVANNAH RIVER TOO
Back to a tattered room on Factors Row, a room smelling of cigars, whiskey, sweat.
Savannah River too.
Back to a closet with a pallet for her sleep.
Back to sleep never coming quickly enough after Mamma poured a hot, bitter drink down her throat, plugged cotton in her ears.
Back to ...CHAPTER 3
SLIPWAYS TO THE PAST
Reverend McElroy's voice was high, cracked. "We therefore commit her body ..."
Wrenched free of the past, Essie gazed up at the live oaks weeping Spanish moss.
A fairly decent send-off. That's something.
Had there been even a whiff of repentance with that last or next-to-last breath?
Clearly Reverend McElroy's church hadn't thought so. It tolerated a graveside funeral but not a burial among its parishioners. So it was that they were on the outskirts of the cemetery, in Strangers' Ground.
Essie shifted from foot to foot, willed herself to sail into her dream coming true, her rescue from a life of pitiful prospects. Her magnificent black mourning dress bore witness to that. Yet, even while surrendering to a moment of delight over that fancy black dress — in her wishes having wings — Essie still couldn't keep her mind from finding slipways to the past.CHAPTER 4
UNCLE PERCIVAL, UNCLE ...
Back to the whisper, "It'll make for sweet dreams."
Like quiet, sweet dreams were rare. Nightmares mostly.
Struggling to breathe.
Trapped in a sack, desperately trying to bite, claw her way out.
Back to slivers of time between sleep and wake violated by terrifying noises from the street.
Fists pounding flesh.
Feet running fast.
More sickening were the sounds from the other side of the closet door in that tattered room on Factors Row.
Huffing, puffing, panting.
Mamma crying out, "Oh, mercy!"
Bedsprings squeaked something awful. Now fast. Now slow.
Uncle Judd.CHAPTER 5
ESPECIALLY UNCLE FRITZ
Back to stairs creaking when uncles tromped up, tromped down.
Especially Uncle Fritz with the club foot and that cane of his sporting a frightening Bird Man handle that could take out an eye.
How can white menfolks be uncles? Essie wondered once she was old enough to start sifting out distinctions. Maybe, she reasoned, maybe they light-skinned colored like me.Only lighter.
Brothers of the pa she never knew?
Brothers of Mamma?
Neither idea sat right.
Was she five, six?
Bewildered and scared, Essie often cried herself to sleep.CHAPTER 6
SALTBOX HOUSE ON MINIS STREET
Back to mornings of chains clanking; brute, bossy voices; horses clip-clopping, clip-clopping.
And the uncles kept coming.
More after Mamma moved them into that saltbox house on Minis Street, a house shared with aunties Katy and Emma.
One skinny, coffee-bean brown with Cherokee cheeks, a sly smile. The other close to pecan in color. More meat on her bones. Weasel eyes.
Like Mamma, the aunties slept heaps and heavy when the sun was out. Afternoons they most times lollygagged in the parlor wearing sheer gowns or brightly colored robes over camisoles and pantaloons.
Soon to get gussied up for the uncles.
At least Essie no longer slept in a closet some nights, most nights. In that house on Minis Street she had the tiny attic all to herself.
It was a meager, miserable room early on. Moss-stuffed mattress atop a narrow wrought-iron bed, a small battered dull blue sea chest at its foot. Painted on its inside lid was a three-masted schooner. That seafaring scene called to little Essie. Many a night she wished that she was on that ship or at least that the sea chest was large enough for her to climb into, shut the lid, shut out all the noises rising from below.
Mamma or an auntie, perched on the red velvet, goldtasseled stool, banging away on that decrepit melodeon.
Essie was back to wanting to scream.CHAPTER 7
FAR, FAR AWAY FROM FOREST CITY
She blinked as wicked winds whipped through Strangers' Ground. Spanish moss seemed in a right frenzy to be free.
And Essie saw herself all those years ago, curled up in the attic's dormer window seat, gazing out at the night.
Some nights sweltering.
Other nights cold.
During hailstorms, rainstorms, lightning like cannon blasts.
Essie saw herself longing to be far, far away from that house on Minis Street — far, far away from Forest City.
Most of all she had ached to be somebody else's child.CHAPTER 8
FIRST RESCUE, FIRST REFUGE
"Earth to earth ..."
On Wednesday, July 13, 1881, standing there in Strangers' Ground, when Essie caught herself wringing her hands, gritting her teeth, she switched her mind to what she had to get done within the next few days.
Sort out the house on Minis Street.
Finish up with Lawyer Logan.
Teach the new girl the boardinghouse rules.
Buy a leather traveling bag from Clapp's.
Give Ma Clara a surprise, Binah some clothes.
In just a few days Essie would be gone from Forest City.
Beneath her dense black veil she allowed herself a smile.
But then she looked over at Binah, first and only friend. A lump arose in Essie's throat after a glance at bandylegged Ma Clara. Ma Clara with twinkling eyes, gray hair like a crown, skin darker than a moonless winter midnight. Ever since she could remember, the old woman came twice a week to clean that house on Minis Street. Ma Clara had been her first rescue, first refuge. She had so much to thank her for, starting with ...CHAPTER 9
TOO MUCH RED
Mamma was primping and preening at her dressing table.
Ma Clara stood in the doorway with a dusty blue full apron over a brown plaid dress. A cinnamon head wrap covered her hair.
"Yes, Praline, school. So Essie can get proper book learning, learn her sums and such. She's a bright one." Ma Clara had taught Essie the alphabet, had her reading small words.
Peeking from behind Ma Clara's skirt, doe-eyed, sandyhaired Essie, all of seven, sent up a hallelujah for the timing. When Mamma was getting ready for the night, especially a Friday night, she was bound to say yes to anything.
Essie crossed her fingers behind her back as she watched Mamma — hair done up, rouge on cheeks and lips — stand, tighten her corset, strap on a bustle.
"School cost money?" Mamma commenced wiggling and squirming into a screaming hot-pink ball gown with black lace trim.
"Beach Institute is a dollar a month," replied Ma Clara. "Best one around here for colored."
"And if you ask me Essie deserves the best," Ma Clara added.
Essie hoped to be as strong as Ma Clara one day. Though Mamma had her hard face on, Essie had a hunch that deep down she was afraid of Ma Clara.
Mamma stepped into scarlet spool-heeled silk shoes with pink rosettes on the toes.
Little Essie hardly ever went into Mamma's room. It made her stomach hurt, brought a tightness to her chest.
Too much red.
Wallpaper worse. Blood-red with a crowd of giant pink and gold peonies in a wild, wicked dance.
"I guess it be okay," Mamma finally said, dabbing scent behind her ears.
Essie raced up to her room, looked in her mirror. In this magical moment the flecks of green in her hazel eyes sparkled.
"I'm going to school!" She jumped up and down. "I'm going to school!"CHAPTER 10
Essie was a new penny those first few days, a jumble of jubilee over the fact that, though bleary-eyed and grumpy, Mamma got her ready for school. Mamma had even bought her two new dresses, a tartan green and a calico blue, along with a pair of bone-colored high-top side-button shoes.
Essie thought she glimpsed a rise of pride in Mamma's eyes as she headed off to school.
"Lemme lone," Mamma grunted when Essie tried to wake her on a Friday within weeks of her starting school, where Miss Purdy, in a crisp white blouse and black or gray skirt, made everybody sit up straight and began each lesson with "Well, now, boys and girls ..."
On that "Lemme lone" Friday Essie spotted an empty pink bottle on Mamma's bedroom floor. She picked it up.
Mysterious word. Essie couldn't make it out. The longer she stared at the skull and crossbones on the label the more her stomach hurt. Trembling, she laid the bottle on the dressing table, dashed from the room.
Face washed, teeth cleaned with a finger and some bicarb soda, Essie pulled out a dress from the wicker basket in a corner of her bedroom. She opened the window, waved the dress in the air, put it on. Lickety-split she was downstairs in the kitchen dabbing a vanilla extract behind her ears and, here and there, on her green dress. That's when she saw the Catawba jam stain on the back. Right where she sat.
Essie wiped at the stain with a wet dishrag, but the red wouldn't go away.
It only went pink.
What started out looking like a pond became an ocean.
Back up in her room Essie took off her dress, turned it inside out, put it back on. Then she grabbed her satchel, bounded down the stairs. On the last step, a heel broke off.
Her stomach was a boat on a tempest-tossed sea as she fought back tears. She could keep on going or head back up to her room and change into her mud-colored canvas shoes.
Miss Purdy whacked your hand with a ruler if you were late.
Essie decided to keep on going. She hobbled fast to school.CHAPTER 11
"Essie is messy! Essie is messy!" chanted Sarah Pace during recess that day. "And look at those crookedy-crookedy plaits!"
Essie's stomach growled.
Sarah Pace howled with laughter, waved other kids over. Then she wagged a finger in Essie's face, the finger of her right hand on the back of which was a birthmark shaped like a heart. "Essie is Messy!" taunted this chestnut girl with wide-set, witching eyes, hooded lids. "Gutter girl!" she yelled.
Surrounded, Essie burst into tears.
"Essie is Messy! Essie is Messy! Essie is Messy!" the children chanted.
Ma Clara came to the rescue again. She persuaded Mamma to let Essie stay by her on weekends.
* * *
Had Essie known the word "halcyon," that's how she would have described her days on Shad Island. There, in Ma Clara's tabby cottage, she learned to tend to herself better, from washing her clothes to washing and plaiting her hair, there on that tiny island where it seemed everybody except Ma Clara was Geechee, like her second husband had been and like ferryman Jack was, ferryman Jack who always sang the same song, going to, going fro.
"Freewillum!" the tall, reedy man shouted out. "Gwine home to sine de oshun. ... Freewillum!"
"Freewillum!" Essie sometimes sang to herself during Shad Island days as she drew pictures in the sand, trawled for crawfish, helped Ma Clara chop, slice, and dice the makings of Frogmore Stew or other dish. That's how Essie said thank you.
And, come nightfall, by readying things for Ma Clara's foot soak. When that was over, Essie rubbed the old woman's ankles and knees with liniment, then her hands and feet with a rosemary and rosewater balm.
"A life of hard toil sure takes a toll," Ma Clara sometimes said as she slipped her feet into the wooden tub of hot water sprinkled with lovage and lavender. "Essie, do make something of yourself," she urged. "True, life is hard on us colored, but any opportunity come your way to rise in life you must be like a dog with a bone so you don't end up all broke down when old."
Essie sat beside Ma Clara on a toad-frog stool or cross-legged on the floor, always hungry for the love and eager for wisdom and stories, even though some of them left Essie with a hurting heart. Like the one about the Weeping Time.
"They say if not the largest it was one of the largest sales of slaves by a single planter. Ole Pierce Butler, who didn't even live down here but up in Philadelphia."
They were before the hearth, Essie almost done greasing Ma Clara's scalp.
"High living, gambling, and speculations — buying things he thought would rise in value — Ole Pierce Butler was drowning in debt, had to sell slaves. Over four hundred souls, some from his cotton planation on St. Simon's. Some from his rice plantation near Darien. All born there, many like their people before them."
Essie was ready to start cornrowing the old woman's hair.
"It was an April day — no, in March — when they crammed those poor souls into stalls out at the race track. Most field hands, others carpenters, mechanics, house servants. Some old like I am now. Some babies. I believe only one family was fortunate to be bought by one person."
Essie's fingers moved quickly, her parts were straight.
"That auction lasted for two days. And the whole time it rained, steady, heavy. Only after the last group of slaves stepped down from the auction block did the wind and rain cease. That's why we call it the Weeping Time. God was crying right along with us."
Essie was herself close to crying as she imagined all the tears colored shed during slavery days.
Tears filling oceans.
Stories like that of the Weeping Time always made Essie so glad that she wasn't white, no matter Ma Clara had told her that not all whitefolks were vipers. "Some was our friends," she had said one day. "Senator Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child. Lots of Quakers."
Still, as Essie continued to thank God that she hadn't known slavery, she continued to thank him that she wasn't white. She didn't like her color, didn't like being so close in color to the uncles. She wished she was all-African like Ma Clara, like ferryman Jack, like everybody else on Shad Island seemed to be.
It was on Shad Island that Ma Clara also told Essie why her friend Old Man Boney, drayman and lamplighter, didn't have a real home to speak of.
"His carts is his home." Ma Clara then explained that Old Man Boney had been one of the thousands of colored folks who got acres from the government during the war. "Land in Carolina, Florida, Georgia too. Lowcountry land all for colored people only."
Old Man Boney's land had been on Skidaway Island.
"Had built himself a nice little home, outbuildings. He'd sown crops. Was ready to ask his sweetheart to marry him when government men came to say the land was no longer his and was going back to secesh men. He didn't want any kind of regular home after that, didn't trust that some white man wouldn't take it away."
Reverend Zephaniah McElroy hiccuped.
That snatched Essie back to ...CHAPTER 12
THE BACKHAND SLAP
"You ungrateful little heifer!"
Essie had pretended to not see the bloodstains on Mamma's pantaloons when her dressing gown flew open with the backhand slap.
Minutes earlier Essie stood in the archway to the kitchen, eyes on the floor.
"I got work, Mamma. Be moving out."
Mamma, squinty-eyed, was slouched in a chair at the kitchen table. There was a bag of taffy and a cup of black coffee before her. She hiccuped, then asked, "Work?" She hiccuped again. "What kind of work?"
"Ma Clara got me a place at Abby Bowfield's."
"Over on Bryan, a boardinghouse. Ma Clara said Miss Abby's rheumatism plagues her something awful, so she can't do like she used to." Essie knew the details would be lost on Mamma, but she reckoned that if she kept talking she'd keep up her nerve. "More than that, Miss Abby's number-one maid is getting married soon, moving to Brunswick. Pays six dollars a week, plus room and — "
On the tail end of another hiccup Mamma looked Essie up and down scornful-like. "You leavin' from here to be a damn servant?" She rose.
Essie took a step back. "Miss Abby's is an upstanding place."
"Mean to tell me I done raised a fool?"
You didn't raise me at all, Essie thought. Ma Clara did that.
"You rather scrub floors and empty piss pots than — "
Essie blazed with rage. "At least it's honest work!"
Essie had figured on a peaceful parting, thought Mamma would be glad to have the attic free of her. She could do it up in red, rent it out to a girl ready to shift from walking the waterfront.
Face stinging, Essie spun around, made for her room.
Excerpted from "Inventing Victoria"
Copyright © 2019 Tonya Bolden.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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