You can be anything you want to be!
That’s what you were told, growing up: you could do anything, try everything, and be anybody you wanted to be, if you tried. Set your sights on something, and it was yours — so in the new novel “Inventing Victoria” by Tonya Bolden, a young girl wants a better life.
Five-year-old Essie was embarrassed half to death.
High in her attic room, she could still hear the noises of the “uncles” that her Mamma was entertaining but the “uncles” were all white men, which made no sense and Essie hated it. It should’ve come as no surprise to anybody that she wanted to go live at Ma Clara’s house, where she never had to worry about food or “uncles.”
Ma Clara had helped nourish her mind and her soul, and Essie knew the time was right for her to leave Mamma by taking a job at Abby Bowfield’s boardinghouse. There, she made her first friend and she dared to dream of a happy future — as if, for a girl whose Mamma escaped from slavery, that wasn’t impossible.
And then the impossible happened.
Miss Dorcas Vashon, who had Room 4 at Miss Abby’s on permanent hold, took a liking to Essie and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: She’d take Essie away from Savannah and make her into a lady, teach her, form her, correct her speech, and fix her slouch. In exchange, Essie would have to give up everything she’d ever known.
And so, a girl named Essie stepped away from Miss Abby’s boardinghouse one day, and became Victoria.
At 18, Victoria tried not to look back at her life. Doing so was “excessively ill-bred” but she couldn’t help it. With the guidance of Dorcas Vashon, she’d reinvented herself, but there were so many things she didn’t know: how, for example, could a new lady keep an old woman in her heart? How can a lady remember where she came from, without ruining where she was going?
How could Victoria keep living the lie she’d been given?
Absolutely, “Inventing Victoria” is a familiar story with a different twist: more than a century ago, it was a play. Half that, it was a movie. Now, this Pygmalion-like tale is set in the years after the Civil War, and your teen is going to love it.
Not only is it a great story, author Tonya Bolden also creates settings that invite historical figures to pass through her characters’ lives.
Frederick Douglass is here. James Wormley is mentioned, as is O.S.B. Wall and John Mercer Langston, and Elizabeth Keckley makes dresses for Victoria. These people flow through the tale like it’s an everyday thing to 19th-century folks but for modern readers, Bolden makes their presence feel like visits from royalty.
Relevant, timely, and quietly informative, for a 12- to 17-year-old who enjoys gentle adventure plus romance wrapped in a fairy tale, this book is perfect. For her, “Inventing Victoria” is a book she’ll want to be near.
“Inventing Victoria” by Tonya Bolden, 2019, Bloomsbury $17.99, 264 pages