Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New Novel Explores a Real-Life Black American Kingdom (Exclusive)

A new, and gripping, historical novel from Dolen Perkins-Valdez will hit shelves soon.

The bestselling author of Take My Hand has shared the cover of her latest book, Happy Land, exclusively with PEOPLE. The new novel will hit shelves early next year from Berkley.

In Happy Land, Nikki Berry hasn’t seen her estranged grandmother, Mother Rita, in years. When Mother Rita calls and tells her to visit her in North Carolina, Nikki learns of a mountain kingdom called Happy Land — where her great-great-great grandmother, Luella, was once its queen.

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Soon, Nikki sees just how much her family’s legacy is embedded in the mountain – and how it’s up to her to protect their land before it’s taken away.

‘Happy Land’ by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.

Berkley


And while it is a fictionalized account, Perkins-Valdez, a winner of the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Librarian Association and a two-time finalist for the NAACP Image Awards, says that the novel is based upon a real community.

“In fall 1873, a group of African American freedpeople left Spartanburg County, S.C. and headed north across the state line into North Carolina, where they established a remote community in the mountains,” Perkins-Valdez says. “In 1882, they purchased 205 acres of that land. They called it the Kingdom of the Happy Land. They named a king and queen.”

“When I first discovered this local legend, I was intrigued by this community where Black folks established their own laws, shared in communal profits, imagined themselves as royalty and purchased the land on which they lived,” the author continues. “It sounded like something made-up. A fairytale. But it was real, a feat of imagination and economic empowerment that few people have documented in our nation’s history.”

Perkins-Valdez’s interest in the story pushed her to tell it through her own work as well.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez.

Norman E. Jones


“I couldn’t help but be deeply affected by their audacity and self-sufficiency,” the author says. “I decided to write this book in order to recover the lost voices of these early dreamers. But even more, I wanted to tie their dream for land ownership to the travails of people all over the world, who once claimed a land, then lost it. Ultimately, this is a book that ties the past to the present, that pushes us to consider how the mistakes of our predecessors continue to haunt us even now.”

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Read on for an exclusive excerpt from the novel.

The land stretches in all directions, but Mother Rita walks toward a line of trees that edges the field to what I believe is south. A trio of geese glides across the sky in a v-formation, honking loudly. My mama can name a lot of birds by listening, and from a young age, she taught me some of the common birdsongs we hear in D.C. all the time. The first one I learned was the chipping of baby sparrows that would wake me up every spring. Being outside with Mama was understanding that we lived in a world of chatter, whether it be the hoo of the mourning doves that liked to nest in the eaves of our house or the clear whistles of robins that hopped through the yard. I’d always associated Mama’s birdlove with her growing up in the country, but now I am standing in the very place she learned it.

“We going to see the garden?” I look off to my left where I glimpse rows of flowers surrounded by a fence made out of vertical wooden beams connected by wire lines. But Mother Rita is walking in another direction.

“Not yet. First, I want to show you something,” she calls over her shoulder.

Seventy-eight years old and she can outwalk me. When we reach the line of trees, she uses her stick to beat back the brush, beckoning for me to follow. Finally, she stops at a small clearing and points to several mounds of carefully stacked rocks around the base of a tree.

I’ve seen these kinds of stacked rocks in a movie once. I think they’re tributes to the dead. Did Mother Rita stack these rocks or did someone else? They look old and worn.

“Are these graves, Mother Rita?” I ask.

“These are my parents.”

I squat to look. “What do you mean? Tributes to your parents? Or are they buried—”

“Yes, this is where they’re buried.”

I stand up and take a few steps back, suddenly afraid I’m standing right on top of their graves. There’s no tombstone, no etching of names. Nothing. Sparse shoots of grass have long ago grown over the dirt.

“Mother Rita, why not put a headstone here? Somebody could cut down these trees and build something right over top of them.”

“I won’t allow it.”

“You own all this land?”

I look back toward her house, nearly invisible in the distance. It’s a lot of land — acres and acres of it.

“I used to bring your mama here, but she never showed any interest. I hope you’ll be different.” She gives me a look of disgust.

I don’t know how to respond to that, and I don’t like her saying negative things about Mama to me. “What happened between y’all, Mother Rita? What was so bad that—?”

“Pssh…” She makes a violent hushing noise that halts the words on my tongue. I frown. I’m starting to understand my mama’s frustration with her. Conversations seem to be on Mother Rita’s terms.

I look around. There are mounds of rocks everywhere I turn. “Mother Rita, what is this place?”

“Babygirl, this is your family graveyard. And one day I want you to bury me in it.”

From HAPPY LAND by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © Dolen Perkins-Valdez 2025

Happy Land will be published on April 8, 2025 and is now available for preorder, wherever books are sold.

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