The musical Hamilton has quite deservedly stirred up a lot of interest in the Revolutionary War era and, from a separate angle, in history as experienced through lives that don’t fit the straight white male Christian default. The collection Hamilton’s Battalion operates at the intersection of those two topics, being a collection of three historic romance novellas focusing on respectively a Jewish couple with the woman joining the army passing as a man (“Promised Land” by Rose Lerner), a same-sex male couple, one of whom is black (“The Pursuit of...” by Courtney Milan), and a same-sex female couple, both of whom are black (“That Could Be Enough” by Alyssa Cole). And additional unifying theme is a direct personal connection to Alexander Hamilton via the framing device of Mrs. Hamilton’s quest to collect stories and anecdotes about her husband after his death. This is a review only of the third story, though I intend to read the others at a later point. [* But see note below.]
Mercy Alston works as a maid for Mrs. Hamilton as well as a part-time secretary, taking and transcribing dictation of the interviews that are being collected. Her past includes a childhood in an orphanage and a series of romances with women that were shipwrecked on the rocks of the absence of social models for their permanence. She’s buried her romantic dreams along with her earlier ambitions as a writer. Andromeda Stiel appears in her life bringing her grandfather’s story to add to Mrs. Hamilton’s collection, as well as bringing a free and open sensuality and a definite interest in breaking through Mercy’s cynical pessimism and capturing her heart.
This was an absolutely lovely story that wove a strong historical knowledge of the lives of singlewomen and the Revolutionary-era African American experience in New York City with a believable and positive romantic arc that felt true to its times in almost every aspect. (And I’m not going to quibble over the few things that felt a bit modern-minded to me, because there was quite a variety of experience of women’s same-sex relationships in that era.) The personalities and past experiences of the two women created enough conflict and tension to give the romance time to develop and the requisite speedbump late in the story was neither artificial nor avoidable. It’s too easy to say, “This could have been avoided if people had just talked things out” when you’re dealing with a modern world that has expected paradigms for same-sex relationships. I felt that Mercy’s reaction to the “speedbump” was perfectly in character given the times and her own history. [** See also note below.]
Cole’s writing is beautiful and lyrical and I could wish that she’d turn her hand to writing romances between women again...and soon.
* * *
*Note 1: It's been brought to my attention that Mercy Alston makes appearances as a minor character in the first two stories via the narrative frame, and that this can affect how one reads her own story. So you may not want to follow my lead in reading "That Could Be Enough" in isolation like this!
**Note 2: Having seen some other reviewers' reactions to the "they should have just talked things out when the problem came up" I'd like to toss in a plea from a different life experience, and one that isn't necessarily specific to the precarious position of women who loved women in pre-modern settings.
It's all very easy to say, "If the person you've fallen in love with has done something that gives the appearance of treating your relationship as being of no lasting value, as being a passing fancy to be discarded and left behind, obviously what you should do is to challenge them about it and risk having your worst fears and self-doubts confirmed from her own mouth (as your last lover did), rather than keeping your mouth shut, burying your hurt, and pretending you aren't wounded." Very easy, right? Wrong.
It may be easy for certain personality types, but if I'd been in Mercy's situation? I'd have kept my mouth shut, buried my hurt, pretended I didn't care, and added it to my past experiences as a confirmation of how the world works and that I'm not worthy of love and loyalty. And everyone who says, "This is an idiot plot. This isn't believable." is saying that I am not a believable character. There really are people who react like this in real life, and we deserve to see ourselves reflected in fiction and promised our happy endings despite our paralyzing anxiety over emotional confrontations.