The historical romance genre is sorely lacking in diversity. On both page and screen, love stories set in eras gone by disproportionately favor white protagonists. This can lead to the prioritization of limited historical narratives and a chronic overlooking of the full breadth of romance stories to be told.
Debut author Barbara Sontheimer steps up to fill the multicultural romance void with Victor’s Blessing, a diligently researched Civil War fiction novel that brings the genre to new heights.
A Diverse Setting
The heart of Victor’s Blessing is not just the romantic pairing — Victor and Celena — but the lively town they inhabit. Set in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, the state’s oldest European settlement, the book quickly acquaints readers with a diverse cast of characters. The population of Ste. Genevieve is described as “surprisingly cosmopolitan,” with French, German, Spanish, and Native American groups connected by intermarriage.
First to be introduced is our main man, Victor Gant, who towers over all the locals at 6 foot 5. The son of an Osage slave and scarred by his drunken father’s abuses, Victor is now the local blacksmith, devoted to looking out for his younger sister, Margaret, after their mother died in childbirth. Upon first impression, Victor is an endearing protagonist. He is fiercely loyal, driven, and selfless. However, he is also quite young and dazed by an all-consuming crush: Celena Riefler.
There was a tightening in Victor’s chest. It happened whenever he got near the Riefler’s house, or near the church on Sunday—anytime he thought he might catch a glimpse of Celena.Victor’s Blessing, Chapter 1
Lucky for lovestruck Victor, he is a longtime friend of the Riefler family, giving him an immediate connection to the object of his eye. There begins his fervent journey to win Celena’s hand — a romance arc that molds into an immersive family saga, fractured by the outbreak of the Civil War.
Since an intriguing couple is only one half of the historical romance formula, it is Sontheimer’s diligently constructed, immersive setting of Ste. Genevieve that keeps the reader locked in for a story spanning nearly 50 years. Though the plot takes on various side quests, from Civil War battles to a trip to Washington, there is a strong sense of place that holds the novel together.
Additionally, outside of the core romantic pair, readers encounter other complex and imperfect couples in Ste. Genevieve, which shed light on the challenging realities of love and marriage.
Like I’ve told you before, there are many kinds of marriages, and they aren’t great love matches but they can still be good marriages that last a lifetime. Companionship of having someone to tell your troubles to at the end of the day, someone to share the happiness. We can’t all have these passionate loves we read about—it’s not realistic. As we sit here pining away for what we don’t have, time is racing by us, it’s a delicate thing.Victor’s Blessing, Chapter 38
Thus, the novel does not sensationalize its romantic component but imbues it with complexity and the troubles of the day. I admit, this is perfect for the more wary romance readers (like myself) who need some substance alongside the spice. I’m all for some steamy encounters, but my ideal love story is tempered by a hefty dose of reality. Along these lines, Victor’s Blessing strikes a commendable balance.
Avoiding Literary Tokenism
In order to understand well-crafted diverse fiction, we must address the flawed techniques employed by fiction writers. Principally, one problematic technique some authors use to make their fiction seem diverse is tokenism. This phenomenon occurs when supplementary BIPOC characters are written into a story as a symbolic effort to appear inclusive. When said characters are written without proper research, time, and effort, the end result tends to be one-dimensional and leans heavily on stereotypes. (Think Cho Chang in the Harry Potter series).
Tokenism is one of the major challenges modern writers face when writing diverse fiction. That said, one of the best ways to avoid it is by doing thorough research to craft multi-dimensional characters. Along these lines, Victor’s Blessing lends much insight into how to authentically explore a character’s cultural identity.
Early in the story, Victor’s dual heritage, with an English father and an Osage mother, translates into his unique navigation of spirituality. He jokingly refers to himself as an “Osage-Catholic,” since his inquisitiveness supersedes one sole religious identity.
They had an errant father who worshipped drink and an Osage mother that worshipped the sun, and Victor and Margaret were at a loss when it came to faith. Victor tried to embrace Catholicism, but it seemed to him that Father Tonnellier spent an inordinate amount of time telling his congregation what they were doing wrong, and little time what they did right.Victor’s Blessing, Chapter 3
Victor’s wavering faith ends up fueling the story’s subtle supernatural component, which, without giving away any spoilers, is used to reinforce his resounding traits of love and loyalty. As a complex character, his coming of age creates a candid dialogue about living in a multicultural society. In turn, Victor’s Blessing provides lucid insight into a historical era while embodying universal lessons on humanity.
Moving between themes of youth, memory, loss, and love, Sontheimer’s historical romance is far-reaching instead of frivolous — a welcome shift in diversifying the historical romance genre.
To read more about diversity in the romance genre, click here.
Victor’s Blessing released on November 15, 2022. To get your very own copy, click here.