Daughters of Buxton
By Kathryn Ewers Bundy
June 4, 2012
Period Historical (1902)/Lesbian/romance
“The Black Utopia” is what it was dubbed in the papers.
Buxton, Iowa was a coal mining town in 1902. Built by a visionary businessman, it was home to black, white, immigrant and native families. Peace and cooperation reigned.
Into this unusual mix came Lucinda Vanderberg, German immigrant daughter of the new century. She was independent, self-sufficient and full of ambition. The last thing she needed was love.
Soft-spoken Vanetta Washington, born to the sons of slavery, was plucked from the Virginia hills to make a home for her husband and children in the cold Midwestern mine country.
To Lou and Netta it seemed inevitable. They were drawn together by adversity and likeness of mind, and together they made a family. But not everyone in Buxton thought they should.
This book was a nice find for me. I’m still on an early 20th century reading kick and downloaded this book really without reading the blurb; I just hoped it would be a decent book. Daughters of Buxton turned out to be one of those books that wormed its way into my psyche and I couldn’t put it down. Even when I did have to put it down for RL chores and job, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the characters.
I’ll be honest, I’ve written and re-written the review for this book many times.I even posted one for a few days. I really wanted to give this book justice since I loved it. I finally decided to take down the review and rework it again. Almost everything about this book affected me on some level. It’s so complex and covers a lot of interesting history and issues for the time it was set in. It made me think a lot, about life then and these characters’ lives. I struggled for a few weeks to whittle down the review to a decent amount but couldn’t. After leaving it up for a few days I realized I gave away too much of the story and it’s better for everyone to experience the depth of it for themselves. So… I’m trying again.
The first thing that grabbed me about this story was the detailed description of this world of a southern Iowa mining town and its inhabitants. The language, the tone, attitudes and expressions all felt so true to the time period. This town and characters came to life for me in such a rich and vivid way that I even felt that the author must have actually lived then and was relaying personal experiences.
Most especially I was drawn to Lucinda, the character that drives this story really. Lucinda is an independent minded young woman for her time who balks at the idea that as a woman she’s expected to marry and have babies. She wants none of it. Against her parent’s wishes she goes to nursing school in Chicago where she’s exposed to a more liberal society and ideas. She lands a job in Buxton, a newly created and fast growing mining town not too far from her home, as a nurse working for the mining company to tend to the miners and their families’ medical needs. She receives a better salary than most of the miners so she’s quite capable of taking care of herself.
She’s direct, honest and has a clear and strong sense of right and wrong. And she has no qualms about expressing herself when she feels people are not acting in an upright way or if she or someone she loves is being slighted. She’s simple, wears plain, functional clothes and works hard. She also has a strong sense of community and family even if she’s moved away from home to have her life.
Vanetta was less defined for me, but I did get a good feel for who she is. She’s a miner’s wife and was brought from Virginia to be with her husband when the mining company decided it was better in the long run for the company if the miners could have their families with them. She’s a good, soft spoken woman who tends to her family and takes care of her husband who has become injured in the mine and has become an addict of pain killers and booze, all without complaint.
At first we only get few glimpses into Lou’s growing feelings for Vanetta. As she goes about her days tending to the sick in their homes, Lou starts finding excuses to visit Vanetta, knowing she’s having a hard time. She helped deliver Vanetta’s baby and has bonded with her. She doesn’t muse about her in a sexual or romantic way; she just knows she has a strong desire to be around her.
As for Vanetta, she mentions that she appreciates Lou helping her, being there during her difficult times, and that she enjoys Lou’s company. Lou is very protective of Vanetta and sort of takes care of her in her own way, which Vanetta responds positively to.
What I liked about this relationship beginning was that it didn’t build in the way of a typical romance, but still conveyed a deep, mutual, blossoming of love for each other---(to the point that I couldn’t wait for them to get together.) There were no sexual or flirty side glances or overt expressions, no, their growing attraction for each other happens in a very subtle and natural way without any questions about what they feel for each other being outside of what would be acceptable. And it always stays on a proper level on the surface and to some degree in how they act with each other, meaning, there’s never any assumption of anything more than a close friendship filled with respect for each other.
Also, I’d like to interject that I found it refreshing that when Lou reflects on or tells Vanetta how beautiful she is, it’s never with the usual adjectives used often in books with interracial couples. She never describes her in terms of her skin color, nor does she fetishize her. She’s simply beautiful, period.
When they finally acknowledge that what’s going on is more than just a friendship, they easily slip into it without any angst or discussion that they shouldn’t feel or act upon what they feel. I liked that they seem to be innocently in love and in their own little world for the first years together, conspiratorially oblivious to any social stigma around their love.
Of course things don’t stay innocent for them. They are a lesbian and interracial couple living in the era of Jim Crow laws. Even though this little racially diverse town and close by towns in Iowa at the time didn’t suffer the extent of racism the south did, it still wasn’t a cozy love fest between races either.
Both women and their kids try to find their place in society as a couple, a family and as individuals. Of course this leads to many conflicts with some locals and family, especially in the case of Lou whose family lives close enough to hear the gossip. Both racism and homophobia get equal time in any negativity coming their way, however, the really nasty stuff is about them being lesbians. I felt the author neither skirted the realities of racism or homophobia, nor did she use them gratuitously to manipulate emotions. They are dealt with honestly and realistically. However, I will say that it was satisfying that issues along the way got resolved in positive, and I felt, believable ways.
While this story includes the everyday issues these women face, this is ultimately about a lifelong love story. The glue that holds Lou and Vanetta together through all the years is their undying love for each other and this comes through so strongly throughout the book. They support each other, they express their love often in so many ways and although not a romance per se, this is an endearing, sweet love story.
All in all this was this was an excellent read and one that I won’t forget for a long while. I still can’t get these characters and the setting out of my head.
Heat level: 0-1. Not erotically written on any level, but clear intimations about their sex life are expressed.
Grade: Loved it!