Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole is an edifying and evocative story of interracial love and activism in the Civil Rights Movement. I loved every, single moment!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
Alyssa Cole is quickly becoming one of my favorite romance writers. Her Civil War, interracial romance, An Extraordinary Union, is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, and as I’m moving through her catalog, Alyssa’s other books are also fantastic. She has a fabulous way of writing emotional stories with incredibly relatable characters. The fact that these romances are complicated by the racial inequality of the time makes them even more compelling. I swoon, cry, rage, and in the end feel so encouraged.
I gobbled up Let It Shine in an afternoon and adored every moment. The book might be fictional, but it’s couched in well-researched history that prevents the reader from settling into any sort of complacency… because we could very well know people like these characters, who shared these experiences. Let it Shine is all the more wonderful because of this.
Sofronia Wallis is experiencing a reawakening of sorts. As a youth in Richmond, Virginia, fueled by her mother’s love and encouragement, Sofie was fearless and boundless in her dreams and imagination. However, when her mother passes away (something she feels partially at fault for), Sofie tames her temperament and ambition. Her father reinforces this by encouraging Sofie’s focus on gentile etiquette, submission, and silence. Several years later, something happens, which begins to jolt her out of this haze. Sofie learns that an acquaintance of her’s from church is badly beaten by a police officer for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. The young woman loses her baby as a result. Up until that point, Sofie has followed her father’s direction regarding the Civil Rights Movement, viewing the “agitation” has counterproductive to the progress of polite Black society. However, she just can’t sit back in the face of injustice where a White person’s access to a bus seat is worth the life of an unborn, Black child.
Against her father’s permission, Sofie attends a meeting of the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The SNCC is in the process of “training” people to engage in nonviolent protests, like local lunch-counter sit-ins, and even traveling further south to Mississippi to engage in desegregation protests there. Sofie initially plans to help with paperwork and administration, but finds that she wants to be more involved. Yes, she’s concerned about the Movement, but there’s something else… more like someone else.
Ivan Friedman, a pretty successful boxer in the local circuit, is also passionate about civil rights. As a Jewish man who experiences religious discrimination, Ivan wants to do his part to further equality for all. But even more interesting, Sofie and Ivan were childhood playmates and best friends, separated after her mother dies. This Sofie isn’t quite like the Sofronia Ivan remembers, but he’s so glad to see her and wants to get reacquainted. As for her, Sofie finds herself quite attracted Ivan, but knows that encouraging anything with Ivan would only end in heartbreak. Anti-miscegenation laws are still on the books in Virginia (and will be until the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia), so interracial marriage is illegal (and interracial relationships more broadly are frowned upon).
Yet, with being around Ivan, something of her old fearlessness reemerges. Sofie finds him to be a reassuring support in this righteous (but scary!) pursuit of justice. With the legal and social obstacles in their way, is this really a risk they’re willing to take?
I love, love, LOVE Sofronia… I want to be her when I grow up. Sofie is such a fierce woman and cares very deeply for her family and community. In fact, she’s willing to take serious personal risks in order to do what she thinks is right. I find Sofie so inspiring. Similarly, I’m also inspired by Ivan, who isn’t afraid to stand up to family members who tell him to stay away from Sofie and stay out of the Civil Rights Movement. But he repeatedly argues that the fight for equality is one where no one is exempt and those who stand aside are just as guilty as the most fervent racist.
I find it so fascinating that Sofie and Ivan *both* have her mother in mind when making the decision to get involved with the SNCC. There’s an interesting parallel to their childhood adventures, with Sofie charging against their foe and Ivan, the loyal companion, coming right along. There’s one scene in particular, where Sofie is participating in a lunch counter sit-in, and just as the fear is about to take her (understandably), Ivan sits by her side and becomes the calm the needs through what becomes a violent storm.
When it comes to their romantic relationship, it’s actually Ivan who makes the first move, as he attempts to convince Sofie that his intentions are real. Despite the risks, they both decide to take a leap, and it’s really beautiful:
“Did they hurt you?” He stalked toward her with that intense gaze that made her feel like the center of his universe.
“No,” she said.
The word was barely out of her mouth when his mouth came down on hers and her mind went blank. The man could kiss. Sofie had been kissed before and kissed well, but this was something entirely different. His lips were warm and smooth, and so, so soft. It evoked a sort of tenderness in her that a man so strong, who brawled with other men by choice, could have such sweet, soft lips. They rubbed over hers, tantalizing, before his tongue swept into her mouth. He tasted of the milkshake that had been tossed on him, and of peppermint candy. Sofie knew she should pull away, but instead let him kiss her. Spirals of pleasures cycloned through her body, picking up the anger and fear and adrenalin surging through her and churning it all into lust. She didn’t want to think of the men who hated her and the things they’d called her. She didn’t want to feel that sick sadness anymore. In Ivan’s arms, all of that faded away, leaving only pleasure. His large hands encircled her waist holding her in place as he kissed her senseless.
The brush of his lips converted the fluttering in her belly into something warm and fluid as molasses that settled warmly between her legs. The scrape of his stubble made her rub her thighs together to assuage the need for touch. And then his teeth grazed her skin as his hand moved up to cup her breast, and she bucked in his arms at the jolt of it. His thumb ran over the pebbled nipple through the material of the dress, slowly caressing as his tongue circled around that wonderful spot where neck and shoulder met.
“Jesus,” she moaned, the word the only thing that could convey what Ivan’s mouth and hands were doing to her. The power and the glory, indeed.
“Wrong Jew,” he said, and kissed her again.
“Why did you kiss me?” she asked quietly. She couldn’t control anything else in the world, despite how much she wanted to, but she could control what happened between them.
A few days ago she wouldn’t have even considered such a thing a possibility, but now she desperately wanted to hear his answer, and not only so she could discount it.
“Because you’re beautiful. God, you’re beautiful.”
The words rasped out of him like they were painful, and instead of fire in her chest, Sofie felt a cool fluttering sensation. “Because you’re smart and sexy and strong as hell, and you’ve got everyone fooled but me. I see you in there behind the quiet voice and the pillbox hats, Sofronia. And I’m still here waiting.”
“Tell me that I’m moving too fast. Tell me that you don’t feel something crazy between us.” His voice was rough as he spoke.
“If I say that, will you stop touching me?” she asked.
Her hands went to his waist, and her thumbs hooked into the belt loops on his jeans. She felt him tense, and his eyes closed for the briefest moment.
“This isn’t an ultimatum, Sof. If you want me to make you come right here on the mat and then part ways forever, I’ll do that.”
He gave a deep laugh at whatever expression flitted across her face. She wasn’t completely untouched, but she was fairly certain no man had ever made her come, go, or anything in between before. He ran a hand over the buttons of her blouse and began sliding them out, one by one.
“But I think there’s more to us than wham bam thank you ma’am.” He lowered his forehead to hers. His hands slipped into her open shirt, his rough palms encircling her the bare skin of her waist. “I’ve never stopped thinking of you, Sofronia. I always kept an eye out for you, hoping one day we’d see each other. Then I’d either know I was wrong and move on, or this would happen…”
…He kissed her without mercy, as if her request had allowed him to unleash the true level of his desire for her. He wasn’t rough, despite his vocation, but he kissed her as if it was the last thing he would do in this world and he wanted to make sure it was done well. It was all Sofie could do to remain standing; not because her knees were weak, but because if she pulled him to the ground like she wanted to, her church clothes would be ruined and there’d be even more gossip swirling around…
…“Oh, ”she breathed quietly. She felt more than that little sound, but her training was kicking in, even when she should be wild and free. She even had to sin like a lady.
Ivan glanced up at her and shook his head with a glint in his eye that didn’t bode well for her. “None of that dormouse stuff, Sofronia.” His voice was rough and his hand picked up the pace to match. Callused fingertips pressed harder against that slit of pleasure, and a remarkable feeling flowed through Sofie, like all of the pain and sadness and happiness that she had bottled up over the years was suddenly pushing to get out all at once.
“Ivan!” Her voice was louder than she’d spoken in years, and when he sucked at her neck and curled a finger inside of her, she broke and let out a cry that even the lead in the choir couldn’t have matched. Pleasure pulsed and pulsed through her body, divine and unrepentant. Her voice echoed around the gym as she sagged back against the post and simply let herself feel for once.
Even with their intense connection, Sofie wonders if beginning a new relationship might hinder her ability to participate in the Movement. But, she finds unwavering support from Ivan AND from an unexpected quarter: her father.
For me, Let It Shine is such an edifying read, especially in the current political climate. Yes, this is a love story, but it’s also about Sofie as a Black woman, growing into herself and her purpose, and finding allies to join her on that journey. It’s not at all easy, but from the epilogue, we know that for Sofie (and Ivan) it’s 100% worth it.
Let it Shine is MUSTREAD, especially for historical romance fans (1960s/1970s America) and those who enjoy interracial romance, more generally. Add it on Goodreads and download it ASAP!
P.S. Definitely read Alyssa’s other novella, Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight… a black woman politician/ambassador (of sorts) in James VI’s court (early 1500s) and the Scottish laird who loves her… it’s short, but so juicy!