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Inventing Victoria

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
Inventing Victoria Book Poster Image
Teen reinvents herself in engaging post-Reconstruction tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers learn about diverse lifestyles of African Americans during post-Reconstruction era. Author deftly winds history lessons into characters' personal stories. Victoria's mother accompanies General Sherman's March to the Sea during the U.S. Civil War. Victoria attends a speech by Frederick Douglass. Victoria reads many popular books of the era, from primers on etiquette to Oliver Optic's Magazine. The main themes -- parental neglect, racism, challenges of leaving a familiar world to pursue opportunity -- are true to historical setting and relevant to contemporary readers. 

Positive Messages

Strong messages about learning, loyalty, compassion, having a strong work ethic. Follow your dreams and don't give up. Be truthful, even when revealing a secret carries a risk. In a romantic relationship, be assertive and protect yourself. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Despite her family background, Victoria harbors a passion for books, is determined to pursue an education. She faces parental neglect, racism, challenges that come with leaving a familiar world to pursue opportunity. A woman in the community, Ma Clara, provides positive moral instruction her mother cannot give her; another, Miss Abby, gives her a job. Essie's hard work attracts a wealthy patron, Dorcas Vashon, a woman who has dedicated herself to improving the lives of other African American people. Victoria's love interest, Wyatt, is enterprising, kind. The portrayal of their relationship shows respect between sexes, positive approaches to conflict resolution, and healthy intimacy.

Violence

A few scenes of school bullying, racial harassment. The scenes are brief, not gratuitous, with pushing, shoving, breaking people's possessions, mean speech. 

Sex

Victoria's mother is a brothel owner. In an early chapter, Victoria describes her distress at overhearing her mother having sex with men in the next room. Once Essie has become Victoria, she falls in love with Wyatt, and there are passing mentions of kissing and caressing.

Language

The word "nigra" is used in dialogue, consistent with historical setting. When a classmate teases Essie about her mother's occupation, the taunt is not spelled out but written as "Your ma is a -----."

Consumerism

Extensive descriptions of lavish meals and expensive clothes in the elite, materialistic society Victoria joins. Social climbing is equated with self-improvement.  

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Scene where Victoria's mother, a prostitute, forces her to drink booze and plugs her ears with cotton to keep her from the sounds of her sexual activity with clients in the next room. Victoria also notices that the women in the brothel drink whiskey to excess.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Inventing Victoria, by Tonya Bolden (Crossing Ebneneezer Creek) is a historical novel about an African American teen in the 1880s ​​​​​​who reinvents herself. In 1881, 14-year-old Essie escapes the shame of being the daughter of a brothel owner in Savannah, Georgia, changes her name to Victoria, and eventually joins the black high society of Washington, D.C. The novel exposes readers to painful parts of American history and includes scenes where Essie is uncomfortable hearing her mother's activity with clients in the next room. The thoughtful reader will recognize the daughter's determination as an inheritance from a mother who had no good choices. At the end of the Civil War, Mamma, who had been enslaved in the interior of the country, ended up in Savannah after traveling as a prostitute for the soldiers on General Sherman's March to the Sea. 

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What's the story?

When INVENTING VICTORIA begins, it's 1881, and Essie, an African American girl living in Savannah, has just lost her estranged mother, a prostitute who owned a brothel that served prominent clients. She's working as a cleaning woman in a boarding house. Essie has a strong work ethic and great determination to educate herself by reading books. Her attitude catches the attention of an older woman who frequently stays at the boarding house, and the woman offers to groom Essie for elite black society in Washington, D.C. Essie accepts and christens herself Victoria. Victoria prepares for her future, makes peace with her past, and finds a way to give back to the community from which she came.

Is it any good?

This ambitious, engaging historical novel gives readers a glimpse of the diverse lifestyles of African Americans during the post-Reconstruction era. Inventing Victoria makes good use of the historical setting, and author Tonya Bolden effectively uses poetic language to convey scenes of intense emotion. She also successfully tackles the emotional price of "bettering" oneself, an issue that's relevant to teens and families today.

Overall, the novel is entertaining, but it sometimes gets preachy: Monologues included to provide historical details sometimes seem contrived. And occasionally, a character expresses explicit social commentary in words that don't seem natural.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how class, race, and gender roles affect the characters in Inventing Victoria. What do you think about all the things Victoria has to do to be accepted in high society?

  • What did you learn about the layers of African American society in the 1880s that you didn't know before? 

  • What's fun about reading stories about kids who lived in another era? What are some of your favorite historical novels? 

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