The Bitterweed Path - Thomas Hal Phillips
This historical romance really is quite extraordinary:† intensely emotional and beautifully written it evokes a time/place where men could love each other deeply and passionately yet never were able to openly express their feelings (maybe not so much HAS changed there!) because such a thing just wasnít part of their experience or expectation.† Not so much the love that dared not speak its name as the love unacknowledged.† Which isnít entirely accurate thinking about it since there is one scene that gives the lie however itís then put back into the box locked and sealed because one half of the pair just canít accept it.
It is also however VERY frustrating because itís too sensitive (bear in mind its original publication date 1949), too careful not to offend with its treatment of a subject that did not get positive expression never mind sympathetic understanding.
You see it doesnít go far enough to satisfy my current appetite as influenced by a diet of contemporary gay fiction.† I know Iíd have LIKED the novel even more or been better satisfied by it if Iíd read it years ago with different expectations.† However the delicate subtlety of the writing DOES fit its characters and setting and reflects the period so maybe Iíve no right to complain?
It IS about gay (yes, I know thatís anachronistic) love and its physical expression.† Even more startling is the absence of the expected tragic ending (though itís not exactly happy or satisfying either).
The story is amazing simply because it allows the existence of same-sex love (not lust) equal to that between man and woman.† Remember this was more than 50 years ago!† Many would deny that today.† It makes its point that love will out and bears no substitutes: to deny that knowingly through fear & ignorance or subconsciously is to be always unhappy and loveless- AND to hurt those closest who pay the price for that self-denial.
Loosely based on the Biblical story of David & Jonathon the novel is about enduring friendship and love between two boys, Darrell & Roger, who grow up together from age 12 on a farm in Mississippi some 30 years after the Civil War.† Rogerís father Malcolm practically adopts Darrell, son of a dirt poor sharecropper, who stays behind when Roger is sent off to school on the way to becoming a doctor.† Darrell is the most beautiful boy Malcolm has ever seen, fairer even than his handsome son.†
Darrell struggles with his loyalties to father & son for he loves them both.† His relationship with Malcolm is curious, open and unambiguous, almost incestuous.† Darrell owes everything to Malcolm and is very grateful.† Darrell idolises the older man drawing strength from him, so very different to his real father.† This attachment is what comes between Darrell & Roger, which made it hard to LIKE Malcolm because I so resented him.† Perhaps thatís unfair because Darrell doesnít understand (canít acknowledge?) his feelings for either and isnít capable of unravelling the tangle of love and obligation, hero-worship and desire.† He spends much of the book trying to win Rogerís sister Miriam as a substitute while Rogerís deepening jealousy of the bond shared by Darrell and his father (not helped by Malcolmís stated preference for the earthy son of the soil over his academic son) continues to drive them further apart.† Both become husbands and fathers but nothing eases the yearning.
Itís a sad book with bursts of erotic intensity.† Of course if Darrell & Roger could just be together (even if to the world like brothers) theyíd be happy, but Darrellís devotion to Malcolm makes that impossible.† Well, that and Darrellís inability to let anyone love him.† His fatherís cruelty- illustrated in one awful scene early on involving a puppy- and his grandmotherís Hellfire & damnation upbringing have damaged him irreparably it seems.† The women in the book donít come out of it very well and that might annoy some readers.
Itís rather like Jacob & Ferris in AS MEAT LOVES SALT, equally hair-pullingly frustrating though by no means as explicit.
The ending though not the one I wanted DID feel right in terms of the characters as developed in the story.
I do wonder whether the book wouldíve had to be rediscovered if it didnít have a gay theme?† Post BBM itíd make a good movie if done properly.† If youíre interested in the depiction of homosexuality before it was acknowledged openly this heartbreaking, beautiful novel is worth looking for, though damnably annoying- made me want to dig out Cap Iversenís roughly contemporary Dakota & Bennie Westerns.†
So, what other treasures have I missed?