Soldiers In Love: LGBT Historical Romance Certainly Is Universal
Debbie McGowen’s historical novel, When Skies Have Fallen, won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for best Gay Romance. And I can see why. The prose is stellar, as in well-crafted, and every plot point is earned; the characters, as well as their arc, are well-drawn examples of what queer folk have had to go through in the past, and sometimes still, in the present, toward both self-awareness, and self-acceptance.
The story, set in England, follows the trials and tribulations, both during and after World War II, of ARTY, a British Royal Air Force officer, and JIM, an American technical sergeant, who fall in love.
The novel explores the social-psychological-political elements of how people navigate the–to borrow from Jane Austen–‘Pride and Prejudice’ of their inner-selves, and that of society’s own, literal, prejudicial nature. In short, just as there have always been self-affirming queer people (as it is in this particular novel set during WWII) who love themselves without shame, there have always been bigots who challenge their right to live and love in peace.
And McGowen makes room for a story that celebrates true, time-honored love, and even patriotism. A full range of emotions is elicited. At times, the prose brings about smiles, or laughter, even joyful tears. Other times, there are feelings of anger, and tears of sadness for both Arty and Jim; as individuals, and as a couple, they are exposed to deplorable familial and societal treatment.
But balanced with such turmoil, McGowen explores the loyal friendships that Arty and Jim share with others who fully accept them for who they are—despite the fact that laws criminalize them for being gay.
So, too, McGowen doesn’t compromise her multi-dimensional characters; they struggle, but live to survive: no matter the injustices they are subjected to, the men remain faithful and loyal in the truth of their love for each other.
On an even more personal note, I just love that although When Skies Have Fallen is presented as a historical gay romance novel, it’s so refreshing to see a story in the genre that truly is about long-term relationship development; while sex certainly finds itself expressed between Arty and Jim, this is about their monogamous, and (at least during the historical frame/time period of the story) bond through what they vow as a “common-law” marriage.
In short, stories such as this, that celebrate gay identity with pride, particularly that are set in a historical context, are vital to our history—no matter our sexual orientation.
Although When Skies Have Fallen exposes injustices of the past that may, at times, enrage the reader, there is power in such storytelling, because it highlights how far we’ve come, as of 2016, in terms of individual LGBT rights and advances in recognized partner status, and the evergreen power of love, even with injustices that do still exist. This is a universal, and ultimately uplifting story.