The Sleeping Night
by Barbara Samuel, historical (2012)
Bell Bridge Books, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-61194-127-8
Angel Corey is raised to be color blind. When her father Parker returned from the trenches during World War 1, he claimed to have experienced what was supposed to be a religious epiphany: all men are equal in God's eyes. Subsequently, he befriended everyone regardless of their race and skin color. In fact, he openly flaunted his friendship with Jordan High, who fought with him in the war, and their families were close. Parker's daughter Angel and Jordan's son Isaiah would play together and listen to Parker as he read them stories in the porch of Parker's store. And when they become adults, Angel and Isaiah would fall in love. Unfortunately, it's 1946, and the Texan town of Gideon is still entrenched in racial segregation. With Isaiah being a Black man, falling in love could be a death sentence for the two of them.
I thought I had struck gold while reading the first few chapters of The Sleeping Night. Things were shaping up beautifully. When he was fighting alongside the British in World War 2, Isaiah's love for Angel was the only thing keeping him sane, and he cherishes every letter they wrote to each other. Meanwhile, Angel never left Gideon like she secretly yearned to. Now a widow, she is becoming increasingly suffocated by her life in Gideon, especially when most of the town folks begin bullying her into marrying the local prodigal son. Isaiah's reappearance in her life allows her to enjoy brief moments, hidden from everyone else, when she could be herself around the man. It's really hard to fight their feelings for each other under such circumstance.
Unfortunately, I soon become... well, bored as I turn the pages. A big reason for this is Isaiah. While Angel shows some progression in her personality as she slowly finds the strength to drop everything and seize the future, even if the future is scary and unpredictable, Isaiah's personality isn't static as much as it goes around in circles. He loves Angel, he helps her, he talks to her, he gets mad when he realizes that he loves her still, and he walks away. Repeat this cycle until Isaiah is forced to do something instead of moping and whining during the denouement of the story, and I get a hero who is stuck in a rut for nearly the entire duration of the story. He's a nice guy, but he's so passive most of the time! Angel seems more enthusiastic about their relationship, while he's just standing there with a sad face. Therefore, it's hard for me to muster up the passion needed to cheer them on, not when the guy behaves like he'd rather be in a different story pretty much all the time.
Angel is a pretty one-dimensional perfect character apart from her increasing suffocation with her life in Gideon, and she's actually written to be that way. She's color blind and selfless, she is great with children and yearns for some of her own, she bakes marvelous cakes, she loves her father, she is a friend to Black people and Jews, and on and on until her relentless perfection becomes weary to follow. Her special and awesome status is cemented by the fact that she is the only white person here that is shown being openly kind and accepting of people of different races and religion. Well, there's her father too, but he's dead.
And the last chapter, good heaven, reading it is akin to being dunked into a vat of molten cotton candy. It's so sweet and brimming with unabashed sentimentalism, as Angel is shown being practically being deified by her large family of uniformly gorgeous children and grandchildren while the people who basked in her awesomeness in the past step forth to fete her as the most awesome person alive in the world. At the end of the day, she fell in love and married a Black man, and while that is great, especially as they live happily ever after, I'd think she'd personally cured cancer, discovered world peace, and ended all ills in this world from the way this story positively lavish her with grandiose goodwill. Perhaps I'd be less cynical if the author had kept the story going a bit more and shown me how Angel become this beloved by everyone outside her small circle of friends, but as it is, all I see is a woman who is built up in a way that is disproportionate to what she actually did in the story. It can also be argued that the over the top happy ending oversimplifies the serious messages present in this book by implying that everything is hunky dory in Gideon by the last page of this book. Racism, ill will, hatred, prejudice - just fall in love and everything will be fine in time!
Ms Samuel's narrative is lovely and there are scenes that simply sing, but on the whole, this is an overly sentimental but very slowly paced story that failed to make the most out of its premise. The romance could have been devastatingly poignant and heartfelt, but instead, it just seems to move slowly in circles for the most part. Add in the over the top sentimental happy ending and I get what is best described as a finely wrought kind of disappointment.
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