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Five Gay Historical Novels You Should Read Before You Die
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Did you know Johnny Appleseed was gay?
Whuh? No way! I had no idea!
Actually, we don’t know if John Chapman, the man we know today as Johnny Appleseed, was gay or not, but in my historical fiction novels Man & Beast and the sequel Man & Monster he most definitely is.
Hold on! How can you say he was gay when there is no proof that was true?
Well, straight historians have been degaying queer historical figures since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. So why shouldn’t a gay writer turn the tables and “gay up” history a bit? Especially when the facts we do know about John Chapman definitely hint at the fact he might have been gay.
And that in a nutshell is much of the reason I write historical fiction. For far too long, LGBT folks have been erased from the historical record. In my books, I want to show that LGBT people have been part of the fabric of American society from the very beginning, not just since we started fighting for our rights at Stonewall.
And in both Man & Beast and Man & Monster, I explore what life might have been like for gay and bisexual men — settler and Native American alike — deep into the American frontier where life was incredibly difficult, but a freedom existed that was much harder to come by back east. A freedom where a man could explore his sexuality far from prying, disapproving eyes. A freedom where a pioneer could find love with another pioneer, or a sexy trapper with an American Indian.
I’m not the first writer to bring the previously hidden lives of gay and bisexual men to light, of course. What follows are five historical novels that I think do terrific jobs of showing the lives of LGBT men long before the drag queens at Stonewall ignited the modern gay rights movement.
As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
This is a brutal but deeply moving story about a man tormented by his demons during the English Civil War in the 17th century. Can love save Jacob Cullen from himself? Or will he destroy both himself and the man he loves? This isn’t an easy book to read, but McCann beautifully captures both the time and place, and what it meant to be a man who loved other men during a time when the penalty could be death.
The Alexander the Great series (Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, Funeral Games) by Mary Renault
Alexander the Great is a perfect example of historians erasing the queer side of famous historical figures. History books have no problem noting Alexander’s relationships with women. But those he had with men, including fellow warrior Hephaestion? Not so much. In this trilogy, Renault artfully tells the whole of Alexander’s life, including how loving men shaped his conquering the world.
The God in Flight by Laura Argiri
Not every gay historical novel need tell the story of an actual figure in history, of course. Seeing the world from the perspective of someone less lofty than Alexander the Great can give the reader a very different but no less enjoyable and enlightening experience. In The God in Flight a young man escapes his repressive life in West Virginia when he’s accepted to Yale in 1878. Less physically brutal than As Meat Loves Salt, this book isn’t for the emotionally faint of heart since a good gay historical novel doesn’t have to pretend life was always easy for it’s queer characters. In fact, it was sometimes downright tragic.
A Seditious Affair by KJ Charles
Charles has become the undisputed queen of M/M historical romances set in England. And for good reason. She brings 18th century England to vivid life as she spins tightly woven tales of men who love men. In A Seditious Affair, Charles brilliantly brings together two men from very different stations in life. One is a aristocrat, the other a working man. Even more important are their political differences — differences that could cost one of them their life. Charles gives readers a happy ending, but it’s well-earned and believable.
Widdershins by Jordan Hawk
Does a historical novel have to be a straight forward historical story to be worth reading? Nope! Case in point is Jordan Hawk’s Griffin and Whyborne series that kicks off with Widdershins. Set in 18th century New England, this is a tale of romance that takes place in a world where magic is real. Magic or no, Hawk nicely captures what life might have very well have been like in 18th century America while also weaving a tightly woven plot that not only brings our “opposites attract lovers” together, but creates an intriguing world where the readers get to join Griffin and Whyborne on their journey into the paranormal. Who says history has to be boring?
These are just a few of the many M/M historical novels out there. Others you might try include Elin Gregory’s Eleventh Hour, Charlene Newcomb’s Men of the Cross, David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps, and Harper Fox’ Brothers of the Wild North Sea just to get you started.