“As he wrapped his arm around Will’s chest, that sense of connection came back, the one that made him feel like his emptiness was filled.”
In a word: Read the thing. This one is a pretty interesting story about two men finding love during the Great Depression, while also dealing with a homophobic society. Joshua is an ex-army Captain; escalating money problems have seen him move back into his childhood-home-cum-boarding-house with his mother, brother, and various tenants. Will is a widowed, homeless, single father, playing his guitar on a street corner for small change to survive. It’s not love at first sight when they meet, but there is a connection of some sort between them by the time Joshua rescues a sick Will and brings him and his infant daughter home. Their romance is not destined to be in any way easy. They both live and love in a time where being gay is a crime and just generally unsafe. It’s clear that Joshua and Will are very much into each other, but they’re terrified (and rightfully so) about what could happen to them and their families if they decide to act on their feelings. It’s not exactly a downer, but the fact that Joshua and Will have to live with these secrets that might have their loved ones turn on them at a moment’s notice doesn’t exactly make for a fluff fest. The story isn’t as dark as it could’ve been but at the same time it doesn’t really sugar-coat anything.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains period-typical homophobia of the early 1900s.
The Couple: Times are tough in 1932; money is tight, homophobia is the societal norm, and Captain Joshua Pascal is back home living in his mother’s house. As a gay man living in a time where being gay is illegal, Joshua isn’t exactly having a good time of things. Living on his own, away from his family, made it easier to hide his secrets and allow himself some chance at companionship, but now he’s back with his mother and brother and it’s hard for him. He’s put a distance between himself and his family that’s taking an emotional toll on them all. It’s hard for him to make meaningful connections with people (see: gay man living in a homophobic society) but he has some close friends, along with a strong interest in a street guitarist Joshua calls Blue. It’s not until Joshua rescues a passed-out Blue from the street corner that we learn his actual name. Will Evet moved to New York from Arkansas with his wife, Euphrasia, right before the economy collapsed. The idea was for him to work to be able to send money back to his parents’ struggling farm, but these days he can barely make enough to support himself and his infant daughter (his wife has since died). Jobs are scarce, so Will makes money by singing and playing guitar on the street outside a restaurant, which is where Joshua first noticed him. Joshua has gone most of his life believing that he’ll never be able to find love, and that he’ll always carry this emptiness inside him, but getting to know Will changes all that. He’s reluctant to move their relationship further, but it turns out that Will isn’t as straight as Joshua assumed and they decide to take a chance on each other. And they are taking one hell of a chance. The time period they are living in means that they must keep their relationship an absolute secret, or risk total ruination. It’s really bittersweet reading about Joshua and Will being together and having sweet moments with each other. It’s totally easy to get invested in them and root for their relationship, but it’s always in the back of your mind that even one tiny mistake could bring everything crashing down around them.
The Setting: This is a new one for me: reading a romance that isn’t contemporary. The Forgotten Man takes place in New York in 1932. It’s the time of the Great Depression, prohibition, and back when a man could be arrested just for being gay. In short: it was a shit time. The story doesn’t go too deep in setting up the time period, but it’s plainly obvious that this story is taking place in a very specific time. Nearly all the characters are very short on money, and Joshua mentions vaguely about the market crash. Will is just plain homeless for a lot of the story. The club/bar Joshua usually frequents is often raided by the police for alcohol violations (as in the fact that they even have alcohol is a violation). And then of course there’s the constant fear all the gay characters have that they’ll be arrested at any moment and have their lives completely ruined all for the crime of loving another man. It’s kind of a downer to read a gay love story set in this time, though it’s also kinda uplifting that these two men managed to find the courage to be with each other at the same time. It also takes place around Chanukah (not Christmas, because Joshua and his family are Jewish and they don’t really do Christmas).
The Side Characters: There are a lot of times in this book when Joshua and Will don’t even spend much time together, so they interact quite a bit with the side characters. Johnny is the first one that makes the most memorable impression since one of the first scenes we see him in is him and Will almost getting arrested for having sex. Johnny is an old friend of Joshua’s and the two of them seem to have some sort of friends-with-benefits arrangement going (there are no romantic feelings between them). Johnny is a bit more flamboyant and open than Joshua, which Joshua both envies and fears (Johnny has already been arrested once before for his ‘immorality’). Joshua lives in a boarding house that used to be his family home. His mother, Laura, and brother, Asher, live there as well (his father ran away to Cambridge to be with another woman). We don’t see too much of Laura, but we do see quite a bit of Asher. Asher is a bit more social-minded than Joshua, when he’s not messing around with the maid (Elizabet, who he plans to marry some day), he’s trying to keep open connections with other well-to-do families to keep his family in good standing. He’s still a bit bitter that Joshua ‘ran away’ to join the army, and it’s something they have to work through during the story. Both Laura and Asher also find out that Joshua is gay, and I was pleasantly surprised by their reactions to the news. There are a few tenants living in the boarding house: Mrs. Levy and her two young daughters, and Herr and Frau Rothstein. We don’t see a lot of them, mostly the Levy girls as they play around and help take care of Will’s daughter Hannah, who is really more of a prop than a character seeing that she’s so young. There’s also a police officer, and one of Joshua’s former troops from his army days, Lewis, who turns out to be a friend to Joshua and Will (and Johnny) instead of a jailer.
The Sex: A few sex scenes here. The first one is between Joshua and his friend Johnny, which takes place in the club/bar that Johnny works in. It’s a quickie scene and what starts out as a good time quickly turns sour as they are caught by the police. It’s only because of Joshua’s former relationship with the officer (Lewis knew Joshua in the army) that neither of them get arrested for having gay sex, which is a great bit of luck for them but really sets the tone for every sex scene that follows. There are two other scenes and they are both between Joshua and Will. I thought that their first time together happened a bit too soon in their relationship (considering what a risk it was and how Will wasn’t technically ‘out’ as gay), but whatever. Both scenes were emotional as Joshua had finally found someone he could connect with on an intimate level without fear. It was great to read about two people being so in love with each other, but there was still an overshadow of fear over the whole thing because things could quickly go wrong if they were ever caught out.
The Writing: I have no complaints about the writing. The whole story is told from Joshua’s point of view, aside from one chapter close to the end that was told through Will’s. The setting and time period was set up well with the narrative, dropping little hints instead of giving long paragraphs of exposition. The details of Joshua’s army career were a bit confusing, and I don’t remember if we ever really found out how old Joshua is, but I suppose if you know your history it’s possible to figure the dates out. This story takes place during Chanukah, but it didn’t really have the sense of holiday atmosphere that a story at Christmastime would have. I don’t know if that was done on purpose or if it all just flew over my head (I’m not Jewish and not really sure how Chanukah is celebrated as a holiday). The menorah symbolism came across well enough though (miracles and all that). This was a good historical read, even if some aspects of the way things were at the time drove me up the wall.
[The Forgotten Man was published December 21, 2011, by Dreamspinner Press, it is only available as an ebook]