“We shall overcome...We shall live in peace...We'll walk hand in hand...Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall live in peace someday.” ~ Mahalia Jackson---We Shall Overcome
When Hugh Lafoux is beaten nearly to death and thrown overboard from the riverboat where he's been cheating at cards, he figures this is it for him. The last thing he ever suspects is that he has a knight with dark skin and blond hair. Cotton Freeman rescues Hugh from drowning and takes him home to nurse him back to health. Neither of the men expect the attraction they both feel. Although it seems unlikely, if not impossible, for them to have a life together, they are determined to find a way to make it work; but first, there's the matter of dealing with the riverboat owner, Al Shank, and ensuring what happened to Hugh will never happen to anyone again.
Cotton is near the docks hunting alligators when he hears a commotion. He sees a man being beaten, then thrown in the river. Cotton has reservations about getting involved, but he's a good, upstanding man who values life. He knows if Hugh stays in the water very long he will either drown or the gators will get him. Cotton believes no one should die like that and fights the gators off and rescues Hugh. Cotton knows he's in really bad shape and enlists the help of Miss Casandra, who had taken charge of a local when the owners didn't come back after the Civil War and is always ready to help everyone in need. She's also the nearest thing they have to a doctor.
Hugh is grateful to Cotton for saving his life and nursing him back to health. He surprises Cotton by not holding the attitudes of many white men he's met by being fair and open-minded, even respectful. This puzzles Cotton, but makes him happy at the same time. Hugh is surprised by his attraction to a black man, but is willing to explore it. Hugh's good treatment of him only makes Cotton wish for more personal contact, which after while he gets as well as gives. Hugh is introduced to Cotton's friends, most of whom are black, but there's a camaraderie which is exceptional for post-Civil War times. This attitude is mostly due to Miss Casandra's teachings about love and equality and her belief some day black and white people will live together in harmony. Miss Casandra also wants to teach Al Shank a lesson for all his cruelty by ruining his business. She, Cotton, Hugh, and others plan on sinking his riverboat. It's a huge undertaking which requires considerable strategy and timing, but it is possible.
This is story is an unusual mix of alternate post-Civil War history, romance, and steampunk. There are steam-driven inventions including a boat and an intricate metal leg which Hugh was fitted for when he lost his leg during the war. There are also progressive attitudes such as equal rights and cooperation of the races, not generally present at the time; but there are also black people being murdered indiscriminately and even a lynching, which would fit the time period more appropriately. Both main characters are unique and admirable, as well as sexy and loving. There are several supporting characters who are also memorable, involved in the action. If you enjoy alternate history, steampunk, romance, and idealism, flashbacks, and southern dialects, you may like this book. Thanks, A.J., for reminding us we need to look beyond a someone’s skin color and into their hearts to see what kind of person they are.