Publisher: Running Press Book Publisher
Story outline: For his first command, John Cavendish is given the elderly bomb vessel HMS Meteor, and a crew as ugly as the ship. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfie Donwell can pull the crew together before he has to lead them into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of Algiers.
Alfie knows that with a single ship, however well manned, their mission is futile, and their superiors back in England are hoping to use their demise as an excuse for war with the Ottoman
Empire. But the darker secret he keeps is his growing attraction for his commanding officer-a secret punishable by death.
With the arrival of his former captain-and lover-on the scene, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of a future with the straight-laced John.
Against a backdrop of war, intrigue, piracy and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa, from the Arctic to the West Indies, in search of a safe harbor.
It is a superb piece of writing, a credible and exciting story, uncompromisingly authentic in time
Review by Gerry Burnie
False Colors: An M/M Romance is yet another swashbuckler from the remarkable imagination of Alex Beecroft (Running Press Book Publishers, 2009). This is the latest in her high-seas-adventure series, and is, in my opinion, the best example yet.
Set during the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France, c. 1754 to 1763, it is the tale of a young naval officer, Lieutenant John Cavendish, a Quaker by up-bringing, who is not only deeply religious but also fervently committed to duty, honour and country. As the story opens Cavendish has just received his first temporary command of a modest merchant ship, the “Météore,” by a politically motivated admiral, Admiral Lord Saunders. His Lordship’s orders, conveyed in private, are that Cavendish should attack a colony of Barbary Coast pirates that have been raiding the English coast. In truth it is a suicide mission, given the size of the renamed “Meteor”, and Cavendish is readily aware of this. Nevertheless, his commitment to duty dictates that he accept the assignment without question.
The ragtag crew that has been assigned to him also reflects this pessimistic prospect; all except for another young lieutenant, “Alfie” Donwell. He is an infectiously sunny personality who radiates a generosity-of-spirit like morning sunshine. Nevertheless, Cavendish confides in him that they are probably both sailing toward their dooms with their first adventure together. Thus, the stage is set for some male bonding in the shadow of an emerging threat.
They are further drawn together when Donwell is captured and cruelly tortured by the Barbary pirates, who regard the English as infidels, and Cavendish responds by first rescuing Alfie; then by ransacking the harbour of its prime ships before escaping into the open water of the Mediterranean. However, just before he reaches the sanctuary of Gibraltar he encounters an enemy corsair that easily outclasses the relatively modest “Meteor.” A bloody battle ensues—i.e. “Even Alfie … felt a little squeamish as he watched the bodies burst apart, the blood fountain out to stain the white sails red.” –and although he is victorious, John is severely wounded in the melee.
By now Alfie Donwell has set his course on seducing the handsome but straight-laced commanding officer, and his lengthy convalescence that followed gives Alfie an opportunity to gradually work on his defences. However, he miscalculates by telling Cavendish about an adolescent crush he once had on a notoriously foppish captain—Captain Lord Lisburn—and John’s puritanical up-bringing rebels at this knowledge; so much so that he nearly names Donwell to the admiralty—meaning a veritable death sentence for Alfie.
A reversal of roles then takes place as Alfie turns his attention away from Cavendish, returning instead to Lisburn, just as John becomes enamoured by Alfie’s honesty and erstwhile devotion. It is a juxtaposition that will repeat itself several times throughout the novel to considerable dramatic effect. Moreover, two predominant triangles are thus formed; one involving John, Alfie and Lisburn, and another to include duty and emerging—albeit forbidden—love.
That said, there is no disputing the fact that this is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. In his Cambridge lecture on the “Aspect of the Novel ,” (1928), E.M. Forster maintained that a good novel is fundamentally comprised of two elements: life in time; and life by values, i.e. “I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it.” In this regard Alex Beecroft has fulfilled both, admirably.
Life in time: One of the definite strong points of this story is the seemingly accurate depiction of the eighteenth century. Hollywood’s romanticized portrayals notwithstanding, the 19th-century was a rugged, grotty period of time. On the one hand it was almost idyllic and somewhat puritanical in its thinking, and on the other life was ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ In my opinion Beecroft has captured this dichotomy remarkably well, and has admirably withstood the temptation to ‘rose-hue’ it.
Life by values: Fundamental to this category is a cast of strong, well-defined characters, and once again the author has delivered the goods. The two main characters, John Cavendish and Alfie Donwell, are distinct in their makeup and believably human in their thinking. Moreover, their developing relationship is well paced and credible throughout, and they are very much a part of their chosen professions and time.
It is a superb piece of writing, a credible and exciting story, uncompromisingly authentic in time, and highly recommended.
A touching coming out story
Story outline: From the time Will Barnett was fourteen until he entered college, the one constant in his life was writing in a journal, first about his Uncle Sean and the feelings he had for him, then his love affair with Lance, a violet-eyed boy he met on a windswept ledge in the desert of southwestern New Mexico. The Early Journals of Will Barnett, consisting of Uncle Sean, Lance, and All Over Him is now collected into one volume.
About the author: Ronald L. Donaghe is a native of the desert Southwest, and he uses this mystical, wide-open place where the sky meets the universe, for the setting of many of his novels. He has published almost a dozen books in three fiction series, including the first book in a fantasy series known as “The Twilight of the Gods.” He is the editor of the online book review magazine, The Independent Gay Writer.
Review by Gerry Burnie
“The Early Journals of Will Barnett” by the prolific pen of Ronald L. Donaghe (Two Brothers Press, 2004) is a series of three stories under one cover; therefore, I will review each one in the order that they are presented. However, over all, it is a compelling story about a naïve teenager growing up in a remote part of New Mexico, and the sometimes painful evolution he undergoes from the time he first discovers his burgeoning physical attraction to his “pretty” Uncle Sean, until his eventual maturity–both sexually and as a man.
Therefore, the reader is drawn into the story at a very early stage–appropriately told in Will’s `transcribed’ words, and is then swept along as Will moves from one stage of his development to another.
These developments the author unfolds with insight and understanding, as well as some unexpected twists along the way.
This is the first of Will Barnett’s journals, and the author has cleverly opened it with a credible (…or perhaps true) account of how he found these `scribblings’ in a derelict barn. Donaghe then takes on the voice of a unsophisticated, fourteen-year-old farm boy, to relate his awe and wonderment regarding his somewhat older uncle, Sean–recently returned from active duty in Vietnam.
Thereafter, Will’s fascination deepens as he tries to fathom this exceptionally handsome, but otherwise complex and troubled man, and his confused feelings toward him. In this regard, the author has awakened within all of us that wonderment over an older boy next door, or down the street, or perhaps a relative when we were Will’s age–I know it resonated with me.
“Lance” (The second in the series)
At the opening of this particular novel, the author conjures up a meeting with the real(?) Will Barnett–now in his early forties. This meeting auspiciously provides the material for this and the concluding novel as well.
Now, somewhat aware of his sexuality, Will encounters a boy his own age with a deeply troubled background. Lance is an abused youth with an abusive stepfather and condescending mother. Therefore, Will and Lance form a bond against the abuses of the world, and this bond gradually deepens into an abiding love
This is a recurring theme in the four Ronald L. Donaghe novels I have read to date, and I commend him for that. An author’s job is not just to tell a story. It sometimes involves holding up a mirror to society with a carefully crafted message attached. In this regard Ronald L. Donaghe has done both. He has not only vividly described the shortcomings readily apparent in our society, i.e., bigotry, intolerance, religious fundamentalism, bullying, child abuse, etc., but he has also dramatized the harm these intolerances cause to innocent youths already struggling to understand their own complex sexuality.
“All over him”
At the opening of this novel, Will and Lance have temporarily separated in order to attend different universities–Lance in San Francisco, and Will in Austin, Texas, to live with his Uncle Sean as well. It is a poignant separation, but they both vow to remain faithful for the two years that it will take Lance to graduate. Of course, the question is: Will they be able to honour their vows in spite of overwhelming temptation?
For obvious reasons I’m not going to answer that question, except to say that this is the final stage in Will’s evolution from boy to man.
Once again the author has captured the experience of every farm boy who migrates from farm to the big city with rmarkable credibility. Five Stars.
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Publisher: Linden Bay Romance
Ambitious and handsome, Joshua Andrews had always valued his life too much to take unnecessary risks. Then he laid eyes on the elegant picture of perfection that is Peter Kenyon. Soon to be promoted to captain, Peter Kenyon is the darling of the Bermuda garrison. With a string of successes behind him and a suitable bride lined up to share his future, Peter seems completely out of reach to Joshua. But when the two men are thrown together to serve during a long voyage under a sadistic commander with a mutinous crew, they discover unexpected friendship. As the tension on board their vessel heats up, the closeness they feel for one another intensifies and both officers find themselves unable to rein in their passion. Let yourself be transported back to a time when love between two men in the British Navy was punishable by death, and to a story about love, about honor, but most of all, about a Captain-s Surrender.
A superb read, authentic to history, and a touching romance
Review by Gerry Burnie
“Captain’s Surrender” by Alex Beecroft (Linden Bay Romance, 2008) is a swashbuckling tale with real meat on its bones. Set in the late eighteenth century, mostly aboard British Royal Navy vessels, this tale bounds over the imaginary mane like an elegant clipper ship in full sail. On the one hand there is the powdered wigs and spit-and-polish of the officers, and on the other the lowly ‘tars’ who carry out their imperious commands; never the twain to meet … except. It is also set at a time when sodomy was considered the vilest crime on the books, and subject to an ignominious death if convicted of it.
The action is equally fast-paced, including a near mutiny; bloody engagements with privateers; and a skirmish with an imperial, French invasion force on the icy waters of Hudson Bay. There is also a duel to the death for good measure.
At the same time a touching m/m love story unfolds that is as tender as the non-stop action is rollicking. Joshua Andrews is a young midshipman (apprentice officer) with a dark secret that has indirectly caused the death of a friend and sometimes lover—hanged from the yardarm; therefore, he has developed a complex loathing for what resides within him. Sensing something like this, the Draconian captain has singled him out to be the next “catamite” to swing from the topsail in his crazed, sadistic campaign to restore ‘God’s order to things’—according to the said captain, of course.
Enter First-Lieutenant (later Captain) Peter Kenyon, a highly principled Adonis whose own order of things begins to falter when he confronts Andrews’ boyish, Irish charms. Still, Kenyon finds an acceptable compromise in lust with Joshua while keeping a weather-eye on Miss Emily Jones, the ward of Mr. Summersgill, comptroller of the Island of Bermuda, and a much safer harbour.
Albeit, compromises often catch the practitioner uncomfortably in the middle, and Miss Jones turns out to be very much her own gal, not to be taken for granted, while Josh becomes more desirable but elusive. Still, the final resolution is not revealed until the last page of the last chapter. Brava!
Interestingly, in resolving all this, the biblical assurance that mankind is created in God’s image, and is therefore fundamentally good, is argued. In support of this philosophy the idea of two-spirit culture is introduced; whereby it is believed that mixed-gender individuals (i.e., male-female, female-male) were endowed with special powers, and were considered a blessing from the Great Spirit.
Two spirits is a theme that is entering into the mainstream of GLBT literature, i.e. “Two Spirits: A life among the Navajo,” (Walter L. Williams), and “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon” (Tom Spanbauer), but it is also one that is fraught with the complexities of various Native cultures, languages, and geographic territories.
For example: Andrews is supposedly rescued by “red Indians” somewhere in the vicinity of Hudson Bay, and these Indians undertake to teach him the ways of “agokwa” (meaning “genitaled-women,” or mixed-gender). It is an ingenious way of weaving this message into the fabric of the story, but … the Indians in the Hudson Bay region would have almost certainly been either Inuit, or Cree—not “Anishinabe,” which is not a specific tribe, per se. Moreover, linguistically speaking “agokwa” is an Ojibwa term, not Cree or Inuit. The equivalent Cree term is, “ayekkwe,” “a’yahkwew.” It is a truly brave soul, therefore, who navigates these waters without a reliable map.
I hasten to add, however, that this purist perspective in no way detracts from a superb read, or the meticulous research that has gone into making this a most convincing look at 18th-century naval practices, and sailing ships in general; thus fulfilling the best in historical fiction—to educate while entertaining.
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
In 1814, the River Thames froze solid in one of the coldest winters on record; tradesmen and society all flocked to the Frost Fair – the last ever to be held on the ice. Against this chilly backdrop, the printer, engraver and fiercely independent Gideon Frost struggles; not only to keep his business afloat, selling his body to men when he must, but also to hide his growing attraction to a wealthy customer: the gentleman Joshua Redfern. Redfern is a man out of Gideon’s class and very much out of his reach. When disaster strikes, Gideon is forced to make a decision which will affect his future: will he choose love, or independence? Frost Fair evokes a bitterly cold London winter as Gideon tries to find the heat of love in his heart and his life. Written by Erastes, author of the widely acclaimed “Standish” and “Trangressions”, the latter the first in a new line of m/m historical romances published by Running Press.
A definite read for those who enjoy well researched, and well-written historical fiction, romance and a gay perspective.
Review by Gerry Burnie
“Frost Fair” by noted author ‘Erastes’ (Cheyenne Publishing, 2009) is a love story set against the backdrop of Dickensian London and the frozen Thames River, in 1814. This intriguing setting includes a carnival on ice, described by diarist John Evelyn as a “bacchanalian triumph,” thus completing the atmosphere for a superb, period romance. Moreover, Erastes populates this ‘unique happening’ with a fascinating array of characters: a handsome, honest tradesman; a kindly and loving patron; and a glib, wealthy cad.
Fiercely Independent tradesman, Gideon Frost, is a talented lithographer and printer struggling to make ends meet (no pun intended), even if this means occasionally selling his body in the courtyard of the venerable old St. Paul’s Cathedral—an interesting and historically accurate juxtaposition—and the equally intriguing street called “Lad Lane.” Beset by bill collectors, Gideon receives a lucrative commission from a wealthy gentleman-of-leisure, Joshua Redfern, who is secretly enamoured by this beautiful, young artisan. Unknown to Redfern, Gideon is equally smitten by him as well. Meanwhile, as a result of a “Little Ice Age” (c. 1770-1800), the Thames River froze solid to the delight of tradesmen eager to make a pound-or-two—Gideon included. It also attracted the curious of all classes, including one, Finbarr Thouless.
Now, one of the solid pluses of this novela is the well-developed cast of characters, and Finbarr Thouless is no exception. Delightfully ‘slithery,’ he is portrayed as a two-faced, self-centred, foppish cad with a vitriolic vengeful streak. Moreover, given the fact that he exercises considerable sway over Redfern, it does not bode well for him and Gideon. I hasten to add that there is nothing formulaic about this story, for it offers several twists right up to the ending; which is both surprising and gratifying at the same time. That, however, is for the reader to discover for him or herself.
Of particular interest to me, as a writer of historical fiction, is the authentic depiction of the ‘frost fair.’ This rare occurrence first came to my knowledge through Helen Humphries (“Frozen Thames”), who dramatized this phenomenon with colourful vignettes—including accounts of birds falling from the air cocooned in a coating of ice. Therefore, from my point of view a bit more descriptive elaboration would not have gone amiss. However, the story does move along delightfully with no unnecessary dawdling, whatsoever.
Not to be overlooked, either, is the stunning front cover art by Alex Beecroft—herself ‘no slouch’ as a writer. Coincidentally, my next scheduled review will focus on her novel “Captain’s Surrender.”
“Frost Fair” is a definite read for those who enjoy well researched, and well-written historical fiction, romance and a gay perspective.
Outline: Len Parker is laid off during the recession in the early eighties and decides to go back to college at home in rural Michigan, where he reconnects with his best friend from high school, Ruby. He’s overjoyed when she marries Cliff Laughton and overcome with sorrow when she dies an untimely death, leaving behind her husband and two-year-old son. Out of work again, Len finds a job at Cliff Laughton’s sorely neglected farm. Cliff is still mourning his wife, struggling to raise his son, and has little enthusiasm or energy left for work. Len immediately begins to whip the farm-including the two Laughtons-into shape. Working side by side, Len and Cliff grow ever closer, but loving another man takes a lot of courage. They’ll have to stand together as they face faltering business, threatening drought, misguided family, and Midwestern prejudices to protect what might be a lifelong love. Prequel to Love Means… No Shame
A good, solid read, masterfully written, and an invitation to more works by Andrew Grey.
Review by Gerry Burnie
“Love Means Courage,” Andrew Grey (Dreamspinner Press, 2009) is the first Andrew Grey novel I have read, but it definitely won’t be my last. Grey writes in a very straight forward narrative with just enough poetic description to make it colourful. I like that. I also like the way his characters are developed; strong, distinct and consistent throughout. Even two-year-old Geoff Laughton is a strong personality is his own way; although the phonetic baby-talk is a bit disconcerting at times.
I also like the way the story develops—especially the relationship between Len and Cliff. Everyone who has ever written a ‘coming out’ story will readily admit that it is a tricky business to get the mix of credibility and pace just right; too fast and it seems contrived; too slow and it appears coquettish. Happily, Grey strikes an agreeable balance.
Similarly, the events of the story unfold in a logical sequence, and with a fair amount of credibility going for them. This is particularly true of the faming scenes, which leads me to believe that Mr. Grey has spent some time on a farm in his background.
“Love Means Courage” is a good, solid read, masterfully written, and an invitation to more works by Andrew Grey.
Publisher: Plume; Rev Sub edition (April 1, 1992)
Outline: This unique and pioneering work is a comprehensive collection of documents on American gay life from the early days of European settlement to the emergence of modern American gay culture. Hailed by reviewers, it offers a new historical perspective on this once invisible minority and its 400-year battle. Photographs and illustra
A must read for every GBLT at least once
Review by Gerry Burnie
I have just completed “Gay American History: Lesbian and gay men in the U.S.A.” by Jonathan Katz, and I highly recommend it for every GBLT person in the world! For centuries GBLT individuals were denied an existence as literally “unmentionable,” and such history as was recorded said more about the biases of the writers than the lifestyle recorded. Jonathan Katz, a respected academic and activist, has therefore performed a great service by compiling a definitive, readable anthology dating from the 16th-century onward.
It is by nature a dark period of history, and a serious indictment against virtually all holier-than-thou religious dogmatists, their bible-quoting political counterparts, and a host of so-called “professionals” in the persons of psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. It is also a celebration of those resilient individuals, both male and female, who endured five centuries of unspeakable abuse—physical and mental—to emerge into enlightenment. However, the past should not be forgotten so that it will never repeat itself happen again.
Publisher: Palgrave MacMillan (2006)
Three 1/2 stars
Outline: “Brokeback Mountain” exploded the myth of the American cowboy as a tough, gruff, and grizzled loner. “Queer Cowboys” exposes, through books by legendary Western writers such as Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Owen Wister, how same-sex intimacy and homoerotic admiration were key aspects of Westerns well before “Brokeback’s” 1960’s West, and well before the word “homosexual” was even invented. Chris Packard introduces readers to the males-only clubs of journalists, cowboys, miners, Indians, and vaqueros who defined themselves by excluding women and the cloying ills of domesticity and recovers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, and often intimate camaraderie in the fiction, photographs, and theatrical performances of the 1800’s Wild West.
An interesting and informative anthology
Review by Gerry Burnie
While my usual genre is historical fiction, I am always on the lookout for research of a historical variety. Therefore, although it has been around for a while, “Queer Cowboys: And other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature” by Chris Packard (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is one such work.
The stated objective of this thesis is to explore the “bonds that hold … [same-sex partners, i.e. ‘sidekicks’] together, particularly the erotic affection that undergirds their friendship.” To do this it painstakingly explores the “originary” texts of seminal, nineteenth-century writers who, individually and collectively, created the prevailing stereotype of the devoted same-sex partners. Moreover, the author undertakes to “teach readers how to recognize homoerotic affection in a historical discourse that was free from the derogatory meanings associated with post-1900 evaluations of male-male erotic friendships”—a not overly presumptuous ambition, given that Packard teaches literature and writing at New York University and New School University.
Okay, I am one such hypothetical reader, so let’s see how well Professor Packard achieved his objectives.
At the risk of oversimplifying Packard’s thesis, it starts with an underlying premise that before 1900—i.e. before “the modern invention of the ‘homosexual’ as a social pariah”—cowboy relationships were freely represented as quite a bit more affectionate than they are after that date. Moreover, although the stereotypes generally depicted ethnic warfare; citing the threat of “savagery” as justification for ethnic slaughter, and the freeing-up of territory to make way for European homesteaders, writers like James Fennimore Cooper wrote about friendships, “even marriage rituals,” between members of warring groups based on shared values. In addition friendships between young whites and natives were quite common. These mixed friendships usually had the natives tutoring the boys in the primitive ways of the wilderness, and included rituals of brotherhood, i.e. exchanging blood, and other physical, nuptial-like rites.
Notably absent from this literary same-sex scenario is any role for femininity, which is described by one quoted authority, Walter Benn Michaels, as “…the problem of heterosexuality.” The ‘problem’ being the threat of reproduction in a period when fear of mixed-ethnicity through sex or marriage was keen in American culture. Moreover, femininity and reproduction ran contrary to the strong, independent, and particularly ‘free’ nature of the cowboy characters.
“Within canonical as well as ignored literature, high culture as well as low, homoerotic intimacy is not only present, but it is thematic in works produced before the modern want him to be queer. America’s official emblem of masculinity is not one who settles down after he conquests … rather, he moves on, perpetually conquering, and repeatedly affirming his ties to the wilderness and his male partner.”
Having thus stated his hypotheses, Packard then goes on to support these with an anthology of mostly “canonical” writings—i.e. Cooper’s “The Leatherstocking Tales,” Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” and Walt Whitman’s poetry. He also introduces some lesser known examples, such as Claude Hartland’s “The Story of a Life,” Frank Harris’s “My Reminiscences as a Cowboy,” and Frederick Loring’s “Two College Friends.”
While circumstantial, when read from a homoerotic perspective Packard makes a very compelling case, over all. There are no ‘smoking-gun’ examples, of course, because such blatancies would have been considered excessive by Eastern readers—meaning east of the Mississippi, but it is evident that the implication was there just below the surface. Consequently, he has also taught us how to recognize homoerotic affection in “historic discourse.”
To get to that level of edification, however, the reader has had to wade through an Introduction that I found to be a jumble of complex ideas, confusingly presented and fraught with academic jargon—i.e. “nexus,” “praxis,” “lingua franca,” and so forth. A case on point:
“Given the instant and undying popularity of cowboys in U.S. popular culture during a period of rapid national expansion, to identify a homoerotic core in its myth about the supremacy of white American masculinity is to imply that American audiences want their frontiersmen to practice nonnormative desires as part of their roles in nation building. In other words, if there is something national about the cowboy (and other frontier heroes of his ilk), and if there is something homoerotic about American national identity as it is conceived in the American West.”
Perhaps I am a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn’t find the “In other words” any more elucidating than the original statement.
Happily, once he launches into the body of the argument his tone becomes somewhat less esoteric, and apart from belabouring some points—giving a new dimension to the term ‘moot point’—he presents a very interesting and informative perspective on nineteenth-century thought.
Those looking for titillating erotica, however, are bound to be disappointed but well-informed after reading this work.
Four 1/2 stars
Story outline: Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.
From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.
The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves. Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.
Review by Gerry Burnie
An inspirational read, and an absolutely must read for anyone coming out—young or old.
I must say with regret that I have only read one of author Ronald L. Donaghe’s nine novels—thus far. Having said that, Common Sons (iUiverse 2000) is a marvellous place to start.
It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there is fundamental difference between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. Albeit, they are also in love with one another, although neither of them realizes this at first.
Ron Donaghe has also done a remarkable, and equally superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the oppressive heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance.
The catalyst is an ill-advised but quite innocent kiss at a 1960s dance—read a “pre-coital warm up with beer and brawls” before the ‘main event.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick up truck, the first event for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives.
That’s as far as I will go with the plot—for fear of ruining it for others. Instead, I will deal with the many admirable points that the author has incorporated into this novel.
Point one: The author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of reality. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular community like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, Canada, for that matter, can attest to how well he has captured the isolation that Joel and Tom might have experienced when they realize that they were ‘different.’ We can also attest to the extent, and delight that others went to pointing this out to us.
Point two: Ron Danaghe has also given us insight into the dark ages of psychology, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, or, at best, a deviation. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along side religious dogma.
Point three: Referring to the last point, Donaghe has approached the topic of religious dogma—especially “literalist” religious dogma, with remarkable objectivity. Donaghe’s is an intellectual approach—as is the Reverent Suskine’s Unitarian view of it in the novel, so this is not the indictment it might have been.
[As a historian, I can also add that this homophobic view of sexuality has only existed for about six centuries. The Catholic Church was the first to declare it a sin, and then King of England adopted it into law to strengthen his political ties with the Holy Roman Empire. Ergo, it has more to do with politics than morality].
Having said all that, Common Sons is an inspirational read, and an absolutely must read for anyone coming out—young or old.
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Story outline: Escaping into the fantasy of his books when he’s not working in the general store, Ethan Keller has lived a sheltered life in his mother’s boarding house. One day, an enigmatic cowboy passing through the small Texas town takes an immediate liking to the shy seventeen-year-old. Ethan is intrigued by the attention, and the cowboy eventually charms him into signing on to a 900-mile cattle drive. Ethan soon finds that his feelings for this cowboy run deeper than just friendship. He never knew that this kind of love even existed; and now for the two of them to make a life together in the untamed west, they must face nearly insurmountable odds if they are to survive.
An imaginative, charming story of young love
Review by Gerry Burnie
Mark Probst is an author with a marvellously rich imagination, and his first novel, The Filly, is proof positive of this statement.
It is set in a small town in Texas in the 1870s, where we find seventeen-year-old Ethan Keller at work in Mr. Simpson’s general store. It is one of those quaint emporiums that sells almost everything imaginable, from biscuits to jigsaw puzzles, and in his spare time Ethan reads his beloved novels.
Ethan is a nice, intelligent kid, somewhat shy and naïve due to his sheltered life with his devoted, widowed mother, so he finds adventure in reading such books as Tale of Two Cities. Therefore, it is not surprising that he is intrigued by a handsome, worldly cowboy named Travis Cain, who comes riding through looking for work.
Travis is equally taken by Ethan, and a friendship quickly forms between them. The catalyst is “Cleo,” Cain’s beautiful and spirited mare, and from this we learn that, in spite of his bookish nature, Ethan is a superb rider. Moreover, his abiding ambition is to one day own one of his own. Both of these points come into play later on in the novel to make them quite a logical progression.
The two other central characters are Miss Peet, Ethan’s former schoolmistress, and his older, sibling brother William. Miss Peet is a somewhat man hungry spinster, and William is a hard drinking, whore loving rebel, but intensely loyal to his “little brother.”
Having thus created a cast of interesting and colourful characters, he then sets them to work interacting with one another in almost comedic fashion. First he establishes a bond between Ethan and Travis, and then casts Miss Peet into the arena with her with her rather rapacious eyes on Travis Cain as well.
The Filly is far from a comedy, but I found this particular juxtaposition charming.
The real turning point in the novel comes when Travis convinces Ethan to join him on a 900-hundred-mile cattle drive. This is where Mark Probst’s vivid imagination really begins to shine. I have read firsthand accounts of similar drives, and his account parallels these in both accuracy and atmosphere. Major drives like these were no cakewalks, and it was the making—or breaking, of a man to undertake one of them.
Fortunately, it was the making of Ethan on this one, and the cementing of the bond between he and Travis as well. There were other challenges to follow, some of them dire, but I will leave these for other readers to discover.
Strong points: Mark Probst’s imagination and his obvious understanding and dedication to western lore; his characterization—for they are all good strong characters, and also his courage to undertake his first novel.
Not so strong points: Well … Travis does come across as a bit too articulate for his station. I was hoping that his mother might be a cultured lady who had schooled him, but that wasn’t the case when I met her in the novel. Nevertheless, this is only a minor quibble, and it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.
Recommended: The Filly by author Mark R. Probst. It is a charming story of coming out and gay romance set against the rugged background of the ‘old’ west. It is also a refreshingly unique perspective of cowboy life.