A Wish After Midnight is one of the most thrilling reading experiences I’ve had this year. Author Zetta Elliott writes with an urgency that informs the reader early on that this will be an important story. It is book 1 of the series, the sequel having been released earlier this year. Given the promising start, I’m eager to see where the story heads.
The novel is a work of speculative fiction, in the spirit of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. The two works actually share the same premise — two young black American women are transported back to the 19th century and must face the harsh realities of that world. A notable difference is that A Wish After Midnight is aimed at younger audience, though it often reads like Adult Fiction. Given the subject matter, it makes sense that the novel does not attempt to sugar coat difficult and controversial topics and language. Teenagers will appreciate the honesty with which Elliott tells the story and the respect she grants them by not holding anything back.
The narrative follows Genna, a 15-year-old Afrolatina who has lived in Brooklyn all her life and wants to get out as soon as possible. Her father left her family and returned to Panama, leaving Genna’s mother to take care of 5 children. Genna does not get along with her older brother and sister and her mother is perpetually working to maintain the household, which leaves Genna to take care of her baby brother most days. Her neighborhood is replete unsavory characters and all Genna wishes for is to escape, go to college, study psychiatry and leave this life behind. Part of Genna’s wish comes true when she literally leaves her current life behind and is sent back to 1863 during the Civil War.
One of the weaker aspects of the novel was how little the time-travel was explained. However, as long as you’re able to suspend disbelief and just accept that the Genna was literally sent back to the 19th century, then you will certainly enjoy the story much more. I’ll readily admit I had the exact same issue with Kindred and I still thought it was a great and important work of fiction. Both novels are very light on the science fiction aspect and they’re better off because of it. The real meat and substance of the story is how a young woman like Genna reacts in an era that dehumanizes her.
The first half of the book has excellent exposition and character development. Elliott writes in an incredibly modern and compelling voice that makes reading an absolute joy. I breezed through this novel in a couple of days, which is high praise coming from me. The second half of the book is written in that same strong voice and begins to explore heavier subjects that are important for teenagers to learn and incorporate into their understanding of history.
The most fascinating aspect of this book is seeing Genna’s reaction and eventual integration into 19th century American society. She is a modern teenager who must face the institutionalized white supremacy that is endemic to America. A point that Elliott clearly wants to make is that even abolitionists, allies, or “good” white people were still quite racist. Even though they wanted the institution of slavery to end, they still did not consider black Americans as equals and Elliott makes it clear that this mentality would not change for over a hundred years. Consider this appalling quote from the abolitionist, Dr. Brant:
And you must, of course, consider your own limits as a person not far removed from the stultifying effects of slavery. Nursing is a respectable profession for a Negro girl, and doctors of any race will always need competent help. I, myself, would have no objections to hiring a Negro as my assistant. Indeed, I feel it is my obligation to uplift those upon whom Nature has bestowed diminished capabilities. It is the duty of every moral, upstanding man to protect and guide those placed within his care, be they women, children, or Negroes.”
Genna is rightfully internally furious at that statement, but can’t do or say much in response for fear of punishment. She would also not be taken seriously because white supremacy was perpetuated by the majority of white Americans both passively or actively and often violently. Teenagers should be exposed to this kind of discourse because it’s honest and they deserve to know the darkest times in our history.
I was thoroughly impressed by A Wish After Midnight from beginning to end. I must specifically commend the voice and writing style. It is first-person narration done right — simultaneously sophisticated, explicit, and realistic. Genna’s voice captivated me and made me see her as a real person with complex feelings about herself, the world, and its history. I recommend this novel to people of all ages, especially to lovers of historical fiction who don’t mind a bit of science fiction thrown into the mix.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.
In case you missed it: Earlier this week, I interviewed Zetta Elliott about the importance of representative literature, why she writes, and more.
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