Dear Authors and Readers.
If you will excuse a personal history, you will see its relevance to my review. I enlisted in the Army National Guard after 9/11. I became a US citizen and commissioned (became an officer) in 2003. I accepted a medical retirement in May of this year, at the rank of Captain, after 7 ½ years of service. I never went overseas, but I served in the Katrina response in Louisiana. I was a soldier and damn proud to be so.
But I am also bisexual (with some extra kinks outside the Kinsey continuum). This is the first time I’ve been able to admit this in public (well, I came out on Twitter on National Coming Out Day) since figuring it out because of the US military’s destructive Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. My sexuality in no way affected my service. All outward appearances show a happily married, monogamous, heterosexual soldier, which is mostly what I am. But every now and then the issue came up and I had to bite my tongue. I could have been kicked out of the service if anyone had dug too deep, for a reason that didn’t affect my service or that of others around me.
At a time when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is destroying the careers of loyal, hard-working, supremely competent soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen of the American Armed Forces, this fictionalized retrospective of men who serve together and love each other is never more necessary and welcome. I was thrilled to receive it (free) from the publisher (through Jane) and while it did a great job of showing the soul-destroying problem of homophobia in general, I could have wished that it had focused more specifically on the subtle differences of the problem of being gay in the military, rather than just showing gay military men.
“Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft
I don’t know what it is about Beecroft’s writing that ravishes me so. Maybe it’s that her prose is like Keats’ poetry to me: redolent with scent, aching with color, and beautiful with taste and sound. Maybe it’s how she scours me inside with the deeply-felt emotions of her characters. But this story manages to do in 58 pages what False Colors did to me in more than 300.
Set in the late eighteenth century, Captain Harry Thompson, late of her Majesty’s Navy, safely ensconced in Rio, begins a journal of his relationship with his Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton. They met when Harry took his first command of the Banshee with orders to escort three transport ships to Australia. Buffeted by storms, typhus, mutinous convicts, and his own yearning for the free-spirited Garnet, Harry only finds happiness when he and Garnet are marooned for months on their own small Pacific island. The actual sexual activity is minimally detailed, but you feel every prick and rush of longing and satisfaction, the abject fear and bone-deep rightness when the men fall in love. See how much Beecroft can do with so few words:
When we woke, that first morning, we made love. Nothing needed to be said; we both understood it would happen as soon as we had the physical resources to allow it. It was sweet and weary and gentle, and afterwards I held Harry tight and mourned for all the things he had had to lose to make this possible. I wished I might give his prudishness and his confidence and his career back to him. And in a petty part of myself I wished he might have come to me despite them, instead of needing to be ruined first. But I will say that holding on to him afterwards, in the warm glow and satisfaction of coitus, I entertained the inexcusable thought that the past months had been worth it.
Harry and Garnet find their happy ending and record it for posterity, for a time when their love might be celebrated rather than reviled, for a time after their death when they don’t have to pretend. The story is told in journal form, with Harry’s memories interspersed with Garnet’s as they reveal to each other, even after years together, their feelings and motivations in the past, as they reveal them to their reader, who also becomes a character in the story. So even the journaling has a place in their relationship. Brilliantly, perfectly done. Grade: A+
“Not to Reason Why” by Mark B. Probst
This is a narrative — a very boring narrative – of Custer’s last campaign, told from the perspective of a corporal (I think? Too bored to go back and look). Brett has the hots for Dermot. Dermot is married to Sarah. Dermot loves Sarah very much, and Brett is jealous of Sarah. There’s absolutely NO indication that Dermot feels anything at all for Brett beyond deep friendship and besides one kiss Brett almost (but not quite) forces on Dermot a few days before the big battle, there’s nothing overtly romantic about this story at all. In fact, there’s nothing covertly romantic either. This is not a romance (especially since it does not end happily); this is a narrative representation of a campaign: They saddled up, then they stopped here, then had dinner, then dicked around in the evening as soldiers tend to do, then slept, then had breakfast, then saddled back up for another grueling day of chasing Indians, then stopped for lunch, then-. Seriously, with a little more detail to prove that Probst had done his research (They stopped under overhanging cliffs. They crossed the stream eight times.), that’s what the story is like. Every now and then Brett will think something emotional for a sentence or two, but then he’ll ignore it and move on. I hate to play to stereotypes, but this read like it was a "romance" written by a man, and hey, look! It was written by a man. Okay, dude, you did your research; now tell me a fucking story.
And seriously, someone please proofread: "Dermot was in line looking none the worse for wear, though Brett could see his eyes were still vacuous from lack of sleep." Really? I do not think that word means what you think it means.
And if we’re going to have a story about a man who runs away from battle, who deserts his troops, then lines like "The heat was stifling and there were times Brett would have welcomed a warrior arrow straight into his heart just to end it all" are not only not helpful, they’re patently wrong.
After Brett does desert, the level of his thought processes about his actions are symptomatic of the level of emotion and characterization in the rest of the book:
The wind and his body heat had dried his clothing and he began to warm up. His thoughts were a jumble of images and confusion. He couldn"t sort it out enough to put together a plan of action. A piercing accusation kept surfacing-‘You are a coward and a deserter. Was he? What good would it have done to have stayed and died with the rest? Perhaps a couple more Sioux and Cheyenne may have been wounded or killed, but it would not have saved a single soldier"s life. He longed to be unconscious so he didn"t have to think. After the celebrating quieted and morning drew near, he got his wish and fell asleep, lying on his side on the creek-bank.
Oh! Coward! Deserter! Right, check. Let’s move on, folks, nothing to see here.
The author didn’t seem to be aware of the weight of his words, and coming after Beecroft’s clarity and precision, it was almost painful. At one point, Brett engages Dermot in deep conversation:
"Wrong side?" Dermot frowned. "How can you say that? There is no wrong side against the Indians."
"I mean wrong side, in that it may not be the victorious side."
"There"s nothing wrong with dying to protect your country."
"Dermot, haven"t you ever noticed how these things are reported in the newspapers? When we win they say it"s a victory, but when they win they say it"s a massacre."
Then after the Brett escapes/deserts, he listens to the Indian victory drums: "It went on for hours. The chanting haunted him. He wanted it to stop. It tormented him by constantly reminding him of the massacre. He sat huddled on the riverbank; the drums felt like his own heartbeat." Completely, utterly without irony, Probst uses the word he’d previously questioned.
Dermot was cardboard, Brett was an unlikable, whiny, cowardly turd, there was no romance, no emotion, no connection. What there was was wishy-washiness. Was this deep, thoughtful commentary or just campaign details? Neither. Sorry. Grade: F
“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor
Okay, so when the book starts like this:
"Oh, there you are. Why are you skulking, man?" The red-faced, broad-shouldered platoon sergeant did not wait for an answer but plowed on before Darnell could even open his mouth, “Find someone to take with you down to the cellar. There should be half a ton of supplies in this bloody shack and no one seems able to find so much as a tin of jam.”
Private Morgan stepped forward and saluted the sergeant. He had large front teeth and matching ears that reminded Darnell of a corgi.
“Sir,” the private said. “Me and Stokes searched the cellar already. Nothing, sir. No sign anything"s been in there for some time, sir.”
The sergeant walked right past him as if he had neither seen nor heard the private. “Well, Lieutenant? What are you waiting for?”
I’m confused. Unless things are very different in the British army in World War I from the US Army now, lieutenants don’t call platoon sergeants "sir" and platoon sergeants don’t call lieutenants "man" and give them orders. And no one salutes NCOs. So I don’t think much of your research abilities if that’s how the book starts. I mean, seriously. And my father (British AND British history buff) also confirmed for me that the officer corps in 1915 was still very much of and from the upper classes and Darnell is not upper class. He’s almost the opposite of upper class.
Inaccuracies aside, this has to be one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read. This is precisely why I don’t read stories that aren’t romances with HEAs. Yes, I understand that World War One was a desperately horrible war. Yes, I understand that being gay in the military is terrible. AND, I understand that the purpose of this anthology was not all about the happy endings. But can we have ANY bright points of light? Can we have ANY happiness in the story? Apparently not.
LT Darnell and PVT Fisher get shelled into a cellar with no way out. Fisher’s broken so many ribs he can’t do anything to help get them out. Darnell literally ruins his hands digging them out, but even when they get out, it takes days to find anyone else and of course when they do, disaster strikes. There’s only a relationship between these men on the level of two men who find themselves stuck in a cellar together, trying to get out. The fact that they’re both gay doesn’t really factor into it at all.
What I do think is interesting is that both this story and the last both conform to the melodramatic abjection of the married gay man being the one to bite it. Think Brokeback Mountain, right? Sure, Jack’s more out, more comfortable with himself than Ennis, but he’s the one who marries first and stays married so he’s the one who has to die. Ditto these two stories.
This story isn’t a romance. Not in the slightest. Not that it’s trying to be — and that’s fine, of course. But it isn’t really even a story about being gay in the military. It’s just a depressing story about a horrific war. I don’t know how to grade it. It’s not badly written like the previous story (research abilities aside). It’s just-not something I choose to read. So, I guess…Grade: C-
“Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland
This is the only story that truly deals with the problems that being gay specifically in the military can produce. Philip is Eddie’s lover, but when Eddie dies in France in 1944, Philip is left feeling invisible, able only to admit to being Eddie’s best friend, not able to fully express his grief over his beloved’s death. The story is told over 40 years, at intervals of a decade. We see Philip deal (or not) with Eddie’s death, even though every now and then you want to hit him over the head and say "Get OVER yourself already!" The story shows the expected and unexpected repercussions the life and death of one soldier have on his friends, fellow soldiers, and family. While not amazing, this story is thoughtful, interesting, and eventually has a hopeful ending (not with Eddie, obviously).
One thing pulled me out of the story. In 1954, Philip thinks, "he always thought war was sort of pointless and his feelings only sharpened after Eddie"s death." Maybe this is just me overthinking things, but if there was one “just” war, one necessary war, it was World War Two and I don’t think very many people can disagree with that. Yes, war is devastating and horrible, but with Hitler as an aggressor, there’s not much else that the Allies COULD have done besides what they did. WW2 was not a pointless war; of any war in history, it was the least pointless. The mindset Philip expresses is very much a post-Vietnam mindset and I found it jarring in this story.
Other than that, I enjoyed watching this man through 40 years of his life and I was very happy that he had a hopeful ending "blessed" by his long-lost partner. Grade: B
Overall, while I think that an anthology against DADT, showing the emotional devastation it causes, is a wonderful idea, it was only the last story that really dealt with the peculiar problem of being gay specifically in the military. Because in 1790, 1876, 1915, and 1944, being gay was a problem NO MATTER WHAT. So being gay in the military was no more or less difficult that being gay anywhere else (it might have been easier, perhaps, considering close proximity). I would really like to have seen the awful Custer-era story or the depressing WW1 story dropped, and a story about the Gulf War or even Iraq or Afghanistan added, to make the point that “being gay in the US military” specifically IS an issue NOW, because being gay now is much more accepted than in 1876 and it’s the military that’s ridiculously behind the times.
I once had someone ask me why a gay person would join the US military when they know they’re not wanted, and the question made me shake with rage. Gay and bisexual men and women want to join the military for the same reasons as everyone else: we love our country and want to defend it, we like the opportunities and benefits, we’re loyal and hard-working and honorable people. Just like everyone else. Why should we not be able to serve? We have just as much to offer — more, perhaps, since we’re joining knowing we’re not wanted, joining knowing we’re going to have to hide who we are in order to serve.
Anyway. Overall, I’d give the entire anthology a high C+ or a low B-, but the whole thing is completely and utterly worth buying just for the sublime Beecroft story, "Blessed Isle," with a nice added bonus of the gentle "Our One and Only."
This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook version that I could find.