Review by Erastes
Wow. What a read! I had few expectations of this book – I’d seen it around here and there, in this limited genre the same books are bound to crop up from time to time – but the cover always put me off. However, eventually I ordered a copy and it arrived (and it’s a signed copy no less!)
It starts simply and familiarly enough; our main protagonist, David, is the son of a plantation (and slave) owner. He chafes against living at home and the hum-drum existence and wants more. But the twists start almost immediately and there’s a hell of a lot packed into this not very long book.
It would be almost impossible to write a book about this war without mentioning race and RHS meets this head on. David’s father has a shameful “secret” – which is no longer a secret – he fathered a child, Mike, from one of his slaves and has helped him escape from Virginia to Boston to become a doctor. David lives under the impression that, as an artist and someone who has no interest in taking over the plantation, that Mike is the son that his father would have really wanted, especially now as he’s acknowledged him publicly.
David is offered a job on a New York paper and becomes friendly with Zach who he quickly becomes friends with and soon realises that his feelings are a little more than platonic.
The nice difference here is that the men aren’t the usual hairless 20 year old Adonises, (Adoni?). These are bearded men of their era in their late 30’s and early 40’s. Zach in particular is rather beary-hairy and the way that David fixates on his solid mature body is no less sexy than the endless stories of six packs and ridged hips.
The love story itself is familiar though, Zach is an experienced homosexual who knows what he is and he’s finding a way to communicate his preferences to others, finding others with his tastes in the big city. David has been unsatisfied with sex with women and doesn’t know there’s something missing. The difference between them is that when David does fall in love and into bed with Zach he can’t accept himself for what he is and he fights his “perversion” almost every step of the way. (This jarred me a little because I knew that the word pervert/perversion applied in this sense was anachronistic in itself and wish that (as Schwab has so much right) that she had found another word to use – because David uses it a LOT.)
He’s a very angsty man, and sometimes he was so repetitive in his angsting that I wanted to smack him.
He tries to break with Zach time and again, (despite knowing now that he loves him) as the country falls into conflict and then into war and then finally he can bear his own perversion no longer and volunteers to go to the front for the paper, despite having had it proved to him that he’s no hero. He joins Grant and some very bloody history is recounted at this point, seen, on the fringes by David, and his new friend, Al.
I’ve seen this book accused of having “too much history” which has to make me smile – it’s rather difficult to avoid the history in the middle of Grant’s Wilderness Campaign! However I know that military campaigns aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and despite having a penchant for Sharpe they aren’t usually mine, but here I really I enjoyed reading about an era that I only know from Gone With The Wind. I didn’t know anything about the draft riots for example – and some of the violence, truthfully written, is quite hard to read.
People’s wildly varying attitudes to the black population are interesting, difficult to cope with, and inspiring in turns, and I admire that the author didn’t shy away from all this, as she could have done, she could have smothered a difficult and bloody time for all involved with a gay love affair in a wallpaper historical. But she doesn’t, for my money – there’s politics, and the man on the street, and the soldier’s opinions about many different things. I would have been happy if this book had been twice the length, to be honest – I find it hard to work out how she managed to cram so much in.
Yes, this is about love, but it’s also a message (that Zach mentions) that there are “different sins” and perhaps two men loving each other in private can’t compare with what America was doing to itself. It’s still easier for some Americans to see a man with a gun in his hand than another man’s hand, actually, isn’t it?
I also particularly liked the New York social scenes; they are entirely masculine – the only mention of women being when one of the group goes to a brothel. The newspaper men meet up in journalists’ bars, men frequent gymnasiums and you get a real feel of hard bitten journalists working round the clock. Walt Whitman makes an appearance (at one point rather disturbingly kissing a young armless soldier) and there are hints of men meeting up in groups for possibly orgies, but as David turns the offer down, we never know. It is clear however, (Zach gives us broad hints of this) that there is a large and close homosexual fraternity in New York.
Anyway – all in all very enjoyable. However, I have to say- it has possibly one of the worst covers ever. I AM going to continue to critique the covers of these books because I think that it’s important. However, as one of the protagonists is a war artist in the American Civil War, I can’t help but wonder if this was deliberate and that the painting is supposed to reflect that. However I hope that David’s art was a little better. If I saw it on a shelf, there’s no way in God’s green earth I would turn it over to see what the blurb said.
And then I’d have missed an excellent book, which would be a criminal shame. Historically weighty, yes, (for the size of it) but the theme of this blog is Gay Historical Fiction, and this book certainly is one of the examples I shall point to when I say “This is gay historical fiction.”