A historical novel set in gold rush California and Nevada, Devil’s Shaft weaves a plausible tale of gay romance on the frontier. That’s not quite the simple task it might seem.
Author: Greg Bowden
Publisher: MLR Press
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
From the Publisher:
A foolishly unguarded moment sends two young men on a journey of adventure in the gold fields of the Old West.
When they met on a ranch in 1876, teenagers Luke and J.J. immediately became friends. It took almost a year for them to become lovers. Forced to admit their love by a hired hand, the two young men set off on a journey which would take them to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada and forever change their lives. Along the way they meet many interesting people including a red-haired man who needs a doctor, a man with a dog named Ina, a woman with a Chinese servant she won in a poker game, and a Russian Prince.
While I love good historicals, I am pretty fussy about bogus language or romance that ends up being nothing more than modern erotic fantasy in period dress. If I am going to embrace a historical gay romance, I have to be able to believe it. Bowden pulls it off, and if I never felt moved to tears, I found myself smiling appreciatively a great deal.
Bowden’s prose is plain and carefully managed; he avoids anachronisms without falling into the historical novelist’s trap of “see how clever I am.” He achieves a certain feeling of Victorian language without over-elaboration. I particularly liked a series of letters written by J.J.’s mother spaced throughout the second half of the novel.
Likewise, Bowden’s central characters, J.J. Williams, and Luke—who changes his name to Williams in the course of the story—are straightforward and believable. They are not Castro gym bunnies transported to the 1870s; they start out as small-town teenagers not all that different from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer—with one significant exception. They evolve and grow through their adventures into young men far more mature than their counterparts today would be (and that’s as it should be).
The hardest part of any attempt at a historical setting for gay romance is making the awareness of sexual orientation feel appropriate. There are no great philosophical conversations in Devil’s Shaft; no heart-rending bouts of self-loathing or religious guilt. These boys simply recognize who they are. In spite of all the rabid fundamentalism in the news today, we need to remember that, along with the growth of evangelical religion in Victorian America, agnosticism and free-thinking were burgeoning on the frontier at the same time. The relative freedom of the frontier cities (and yes, thinking of Los Angeles as a frontier City is part of the charm of this book) makes the western setting even more apt.
There is surprisingly little real angst in this book, which actually struck me as quite authentic. There is also no really explicit sex, which also feels right. What there is, on the other hand, is plenty of love, spoken and demonstrated. Not only do we get a fascinating insight into what life in a frontier gold-minding town was like (even if the name Devil’s Shaft sounds like the title of a dubious porn movie); but we also get a surprisingly affecting presentation of how gay relationships were accepted by misdirection and wilful misunderstanding in the period.
I have this book four stars because, in the end, Luke and J.J. felt real to me. I believed in them and their story, and ended up feeling as if somehow Greg Bowden had uncovered some secret journal, opening a window into a gay past that none of us will truly ever know.
I would like to thank MLR Press for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
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