Frontiers - Michael Jensen
Thereís a line in this novel where one of the characters tries to explain what he feels about the worst aspects of the settlers on the Frontier. He says they come west bringing all their prejudices with them, trying to force the world into their mould: cutting down the trees, destroying the wildlife, eradicating the Indians, forcing their religions on those they donít kill. My God, I wondered if this was 1797 or 2004. Has anything actually changed? You think I exaggerate? Cerisaye and I feel the walls of narrow-minded bigotry closing in around us. Every day we hear of a new case of censorship affecting freedoms in the states. If you want to see where it all started, read this book.
Set in 1797, the novel depicts events before the other ďfrontierĒ books weíve read, Rezo Strange, Brandy Wine or the Dakota Series. Itís also set in Pennsylvania, which is still connected to the old places of the eastóforts, frontier posts, trading companies.† There isnít that sense that men can forge their own lives here. You want the hero to just pick up and goógo further west where he might find some peace.
Bringing their prejudices with them, the settlers try to imprint their view of the world on this untamed wilderness. Itís hard to tell what would be worse to be in this society: a woman, an Indian, a Negro or a sodomite. Michael Jensen brings together a mixed bag of these in this superb tale of Frontier life.
Running from the death of his lover (a Major in the British army!), John Chapman staggers into a frontier post manned by a lone man, Daniel. With the winter closing in, John is forced to stay with Daniel until the spring. He learns how to live in the wilderness, Daniel teaching him some harsh lessons about life on the Frontier.†
Gradually, other characters are introduced, and each one brings their own rich colour to the tale. John sometimes hates what he isóitís ruined his life in many waysóbut he canít be anything else. As the tale unfolds and he survives the challenges thrown at him, this belief changes to wonít be anything else. He gets angry; he starts to defend what he loves, rather than running away from things.
Graphic in its depictions of the violence of the Frontier, heartbreaking and shocking at times, this is an excellent novel and I enjoyed every page. Itís well written and evocative and has a real message to tell. Not only do the settlers try to destroy anyone who doesnít agree with their narrow view on Christianity, they try to bend nature to their own desires too. In an act of pure malice and stupidity, they kill all the trees in the valley by cutting a line around the bark, thus intending for the crops to grow in the resultant sunlight without the need to cut the trees down. Itís this act of blinkered greed that is their ultimate downfall and this surely has to be an allegory for the other terrible things they do in the name of freedom or religion.
This novel stands alone but does have a sequel, Firelands.
A page-turning blockbuster of a book that has it all:† action, adventure, mystery, suspense, violence, lust, greed and hot sex. Nothing could tear me away until it was done.† Careful research and descriptive detail transported me to backwoods Pennsylvania.† After this and Brandywine, I feel I know enough to survive that harsh environment.
The story gets off to a racing start as young John Chapman flees for his life, unable to resist his need for other men.† John plans to go West where settlers are promised free land and supplies, looking for his own place to belong where thereís no one telling him what to do and sitting in judgement upon him. This has resonance for anyone who doesnít fit into societyís perceived norm.
Two months later the greenhorn is lost in the wilderness, hungry and defeated.† Then heís taken in by woodsman Daniel McQuay who teaches him survival skills.† John is tough but he doesnít like cruelty perpetrated against the innocent, animal or human. He fights his sensitive nature.† Daniel is volatile, suspicious and secretive.† Their relationship is cat and mouse, fraught with tension and threat.† Daniel tells John about Zach a charmer the Indians believed their friend who was in reality a blood curdling serial killer terrorising the wilderness.† After a particularly gory scene in which the two men kill and butcher an elk, they have hot bathtub sex that introduces John to new pleasures.† Thatís when things begin to go badly wrong.† Daniel is afraid of his own desires, and self-hatred turns dangerous.† John is forced to flee again, heading for Franklin to stake his claim.† There he meets 17 year old Palmer Baxter a handsome blue-eyed blond from Kentucky, bold and brash and very attractive.† But John does his best to resist Palmerís charms.† That way lies trouble, hurt and death.
Jensen shows what it mightíve been like for a gay man two hundred years ago. The frontier turns out to be not so different from back east.† The self-proclaimed righteous call the shots, religious zealots seeking to smite heathen savages and sexual sinners.† Prejudice and intolerance advance the glory of God, imposing their narrow vision on everyone around them. The sad part is how little things have changed.† Their descendants helped re-elect George W. Bush and are trying to censor what we can read and see.†
Jensen highlights the appalling condition of women and multi-racial groups. Johnís sister Elizabeth drove him from home when he was 13 to escape his drunken abusive father who wore out three wives to produce 11 children. Trapped in domestic slavery she makes John go so he at least can find a better life.† In Franklin, a desperate father throws his daughter shamelessly† at John, a man he knows nothing about, so he has one less mouth to feed.† Never mind the girl has someone else in mind to be her husband, a runaway slave John tries to help.† We have choices unimaginable to women back then.† We owe it to them to make the most of our freedom.
One of the bookís most interesting characters is Indian woman Gwennie, who saves John after he falls into a freezing creek and loses all his supplies. John and Gwennie become friends, drawn together by shared otherness.† Unlike most white men he respects her superior knowledge and experience.† Gwennieís history represents many Native Americans who tried to live by white menís rules only to end up displaced by aliens intent on removing every tree, animal and Indian in the way of progress, no matter the cost.† Johnís conscience canít accept the way Gwennie and her people have been moved aside to make way for settlers to rape and pillage the land.†
Good historical fiction offers a† new way of looking at the past. Jensen challenges the assumption that America was built by white heterosexual men. Thereís an important message for contemporary readers: intolerance and bigotry have very deep roots and itís going to take a seismic shift to achieve the goal of liberty and justice for all.† But nothing will change unless we have the will to make it happen.† John knows heís made mistakes and hurt women by trying to fit in to someone else's idea of what a man should be.† Love brings self-acceptance and renewed determination to achieve his vision, freedom to live and love in his own place with the man of his choice.
In John Chapman, gay romantic hero, Jensen creates a positive role model to overturn the stereotype that fuels homophobia.† He isnít perfect but his warm gentle nature, self-deprecating humour, and compassion for nature and the environment, made me fall in love with him.† Well, that and the incredibly hot sex.† His story is edge-of-the-seat exciting, with a thrilling climax and terrific action sequences.† I give this book a resounding ***** rating, unmissable.† Now Iím off to start the sequel.†
Published by: Simon & Schuster Inc. IBSN: 0671027204
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