A Pride of Poppies, (Anthology) Various Authors
Publisher: Manifold Press
Genre: LGBTQI Historical
Tags: Various WWI LGBTQI Historical Short Stories, Romance/Love, War Life, Fiction
Length: 260 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
Modern GLBTQI fiction of the Great War.
Ten authors – in thirteen stories – explore the experiences of GLBTQI people during World War I. In what ways were their lives the same as or different from those of other people?
A London pub, an English village, a shell-hole on the Front, the outskirts of Thai Nguyen city, a ship in heavy weather off Zeebrugge, a civilian internment camp … Loves and griefs that must remain unspoken, unexpected freedoms, the tensions between individuality and duty, and every now and then the relief of recognition. You’ll find both heartaches and joys in this astonishing range of thought-provoking stories.
This year marks the centenary of Gallipoli and when I was given the chance to read A Pride of Poppies as an ARC I jumped at the opportunity. I had two grandfathers who fought in wars – one in WWI and one in WW2, as well as my father serving in the latter. So this book has a great deal of meaning to me. Australia lost many, many young people in WWI, approximately 60,000. It was a tragedy beyond belief for any country, it was devastating for such a small nation. Every year we honour those fallen and those who served on Anzac Day, one of the biggest events on the Australian calendar. So, as I reflect on the young lives lost as they set out on an ‘adventure’ they could never fathom, the war that would end before Christmas, this book takes a look at the ‘Great War’ from another angle – through the eyes of LGBTQI characters, and sometimes allies. I feel honoured to read this anthology for all of the very brief reasons I’ve outlined above and because we are primarily an LGBTQI review blog. It’s also important to mention that this book is donating proceeds to – The Royal British Legion, home of the Poppy Appeal. All the authors donated their time and stories, and for those reasons alone, even though this is an ARC, I will be buying my own copy upon its release on May 1st, 2015.
1) No Man’s Land – Julie Bozza
Every year after Drew’s birthday he has a physical examination by Dr Marsh. It’s not something he likes. Further, it’s something he has grown to despise for reasons you learn and understand. Now he’s turned twenty one, and he’s considered to be a man, Drew’s not going to allow the examinations to continue anymore. He’s not going to use the letter that Dr Marsh has given him to excuse him from serving (his country) on medical grounds. Even Henry, his lover and friend – who served in the Boer War – can’t seem to make Drew see how difficult it will be for him.
“Don’t you understand? Even at the recruitment centre, you’ll be examined – naked – with no privacy at all. You’ll have the humiliation of being rejected while surrounded by your peers.”
Drew doesn’t want a white feather given to him by the women who wait for their men to come home. He doesn’t want the jibing of other lads who have signed up. But he’s stuck in his own no man’s land, and the writing makes you feel the struggle that some must have faced at this time.
I can’t say a lot about this short story. But I can say the title is perfect, the writing beautiful, and it made me teary. Henry and Drew – what a dilemma war is, but…I would give anything to know more.
Neither of them found it easy to sleep that night. They lay awake, with Drew curled up as usual and Henry curled around him. ‘I’ve got you,’ Henry had murmured reassuringly the very first time he’d wrapped Drew up in his arms and snuggly fitted himself to echo Drew’s shape perfectly. ‘I’ve got you.’
2) I Remember – Wendy C Fries
…and just like that, Christopher Timlock discovered that though time may go tick-tock forward, making men of boys, once the man you love is gone, time turns treacle-slow though nowhere near so sweet.
A beautiful story about Chrissie and Jamie, two young men who have done everything together for as long as they can remember – still work together behind the bar of a pub. Except one thing they can’t seen to do together. Enlist.
The British Army said no.
Not to James, but to Christopher. Though Chrissie told them he wasn’t born deaf, not in both ears, it turned out that this distinction was no distinction, not to the British Army.
So Jamie is off to war and Chrissie will stay behind at the pub. Jamie thinks Chrissie will forget him, he’s so beautiful, surely it will happen. Time will get in the way. Chrissie knows he won’t forget. He remembers. He writes letters to Jamie and in time Jamie writes back. The letters that mean one thing to them, they know the backstory, but others won’t know as they appear like one mate writing to another, not lovers.
Christopher pressed the backs of his fingers softly against his mouth.
… I pretend your mouth has been where my mouth is.
Chrissie badly erased this truth, so that it could be read if a man really had a mind, and below it wrote the allowed.
… I pretend we’re toasting your return, as we’ll do when the war is over. Mr Ted says it’ll be soon, he says modern fighting can’t last for long.
This story is beautiful. Lyrical. Haunting. Filled with devotion, love, and a great sense of time and place.
3) War Life – Z. McAspurren
The war seen through both a brother and sister’s eyes. A sister who everyone thinks has/had a sweetheart in the war while she works hard at the bomb-making factory. Who feels a sense of purpose she hasn’t felt since the Suffrage movement. The Suffrage movement that is on hold because of the war. Who people think (perhaps) loved Patrick, the boy down the road and family friend, but she doesn’t. She worries about her brother who was underage when he signed up. Will he come home alive?
They both had thoughts and feelings that didn’t seem to fit with others their age, and they were only safe with each other. If Patrick’s thoughts had got out, he would have been hanged, she knew that much.
Her bother is in France with Patrick. In his POV he reflects on his first kiss with Patrick, how Patrick joined to be near him. On Patrick’s death. Sadly, he gets to experience something even more difficult than those waiting at home, watching someone he loves die. Watching someone he loves die and not being able to show how deeply affected he is. Trying to survive. Wondering how his family will see him.
This short is a snapshot of a brother and sister during WWI. Both with some forward thinking ideas – and with a clash of consciousness – but who do all that is expected of them in war life.
4) Lena and the Swan or, The Lesbian Lothario – Julie Bozza
Lena Pearce is the local postie in her area. She rides her bike with trousers instead of a skirt, and with attitude. It’s the war, the local men are at war and Lena’s motto is –
“While the men are away, Lena will play.”
And she does play. With several women. She rocks up with the mail, hand delivered to their door – and beyond – then she leaves to deliver more mail to more women. Lena and her best friend, Emily, are witty and the story is made totally charming by them both. When the latest arrival in town is a Miss and not a Mrs, Lena isn’t sure.
Miss Cawkwell is gangly and uncoordinated and thin but she has an elegance about her. A Tenacity that Lena is charmed by.
This is a loose ugly duckling/swan/lesbian playgirl-twist story that is well developed and totally engaging and enjoyable.
5) Inside – Eleanor Musgrove
Alfred Schuchard was a baker in London at his family’s bakery before the war. Before he was interned at Alexandra Palace interment camp. Even though he was born and raised in England, he’s of German ancestry. Fred’s been at the camp for six months when a new internee is placed in the bed next to him in the hall where they live and sleep. Viktor is a young university student from Germany who was studying in London when the War broke out. He hid for a while, because he was understandably frightened of the consequences, until he was inevitably given away and apprehended.
Viktor obviously had a hard time when he was taken in, before his internment. Alfred is caring and looks out for the younger man, who seems lost and bewildered.
Viktor hadn’t even moved. He was sitting on his bed, feet on the floor, book held loosely in his lap. He seemed to be staring right through the pages, and Fred recognised the signs of a man whose war had just caught up with him. He’d experienced it himself on arrival, and he hadn’t had the terrifying experience of trying to hide.
While Alfred works in the kitchen, Viktor is given gardening duties. Once Alfred notices that Viktor is somewhat… spooked and fragile, Alfred makes sure the gardening foreman looks out for him. As the weeks progress, Viktor becomes somewhat erratic and Alfred and some of the others look out for their fellow internee. But Alfred has developed more than a protective streak for Viktor. For the first time, it seems, Alfred has developed feelings for someone else.
I won’t say any more because it’s better read, but this is a beautifully romantic story of hope set amongst difficult times. It had me flying through the (Kindle) pages to see what would happen to Alfred and Viktor.
6) Break of Day in the Trenches – Jay Lewis Taylor
Very short story of Second Lieutenant David “Lew” Lewry and Captain David Russell-Hansford-Barnes (Russ) who meet after getting away from the Bosch in no man’s land. The shelling has stopped and a sergeant with them is dead. Both men are pinned rather closely under some debris. They learn things about one another somewhat quickly – family, nicknames, and dropping the airs of rank – that they may never have known or done had they not been in ‘the trenches’ together staring at their own mortality.
Quietly, Captain Barnes said, “Lew.”
“You’re still holding my hand.”
“I know.” He smoothed the dressing, very lightly. “I’ll apologise if you want me to – Russ.”
Very nice bite-size story that is well written, gives you a feel for the characters, and I finished having hope for Russ and Lew. It’s a nice homage to Isaac Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches and in amongst these other stories I found it incredibly apt.
7) Per Ardua Ad Astra – Lou Faulkner
Fittingly named story – after the Royal Air Force motto – which has nice detail about the planes and the men who flew them. It gives a brief but good insight into air force life in 1916. It was tough- going lasting as a pilot, mortality rates incredibly high. The planes these guys flew in were pretty unreliable and there wasn’t much to them, nothing like the planes of today. I have to admit to a huge interest in their incredible bravery flying them, let alone fighting the elements and other planes and flack. These pilots were serious early twentieth century pioneers and adrenaline junkies.
In 1916 Aussie pilot Peter Mitchell and his observer, Vince, are flying Line reconnaissance, taking photos. In their ‘Fee,’ they’re also engaging the Hun flying their Fokker Eindeckers. As the longest serving members of the squadron, Peter and Vince have their own table in the Mess and a great deal of regard from others. And, most importantly, they also have their own tent. One of the things that gives them greatest comfort is being able to be intimate with one another, and if worse comes to worst they’ll go together.
This is a very well written, very engaging short, and like a lot of stories in this anthology a longer story would be brilliant. I have to know more…
8) The Man Left Behind – Eleanor Musgrove
Henrietta – Henry – does not identify with her outward appearance. It conflicts with how she feels inwardly – Henry is a man trapped inside a woman’s body. Growing up she liked to play football with the boys, hang out with the boys and when the War starts she wants to enlist with those same boys. Peter, her brother, and his friends can enlist but Henrietta has to stay behind. Peter knows how Henry is feeling so he organises work for Henry on Mr Dixon’s farm, the saving grace is that Henry is doing what is normally consider man’s work. Henry can also wear trousers and a shirt and for the first times feels comfortable. Working on the farm also brings her close to another worker, Rosie, and Rosie, it seems, doesn’t mind that Henry feels and acts like a man.
Of course she knew that Henrietta was a girl’s name, and she knew that she was, at least in appearance, a woman – she was treated to a lovely reminder of the fact every month, after all – but the truth was that she had never really felt like a woman.
The author has a note at the back of this short story, hoping that she does not offend with the pronouns used.
If Henry has been in the body she deserved, she thought they would probably have been courting by now. At least they would have if Henry had her way. His way, as it would have been. But that was just idle wishing, and that did nobody any good.
No one knew what transgender was at that time, and the way Ms Musgrove handles it is appropriate for the period. I’m glad she tackled a story about what it must have been like for trans people in an even more difficult time in history. Another lovely piece of writing to follow up Inside by the author.
9) Hallowed Ground – Charlie Cochrane
‘For those who still lie in the corner of some foreign field.’
A doctor, a Padre and a pack of Black Cat cigarettes end up in and around a trench together when a shell hits near the vehicle they’re in. It sounds like the beginning of some joke, but it really brought to mind the aphorism, there are no atheists in foxholes – for different reasons. Sure the doctor has seen a whole lot, is more pragmatic in his outlook, but the Padre has worries on his mind. The doctor has seen the look the Padre has on his face before in the trenches while working.
“If you can’t sleep, at least try to relax,” I whispered. “It’ll be a long time till dawn and it’ll go no faster if we worry ourselves through it. Have faith.” I hoped he could see my grin, especially if he thought his number had come up. What was it he wanted to get off his chest?
“I have faith. I didn’t realise how easily frayed it could get under such circumstances.”
I liked how much the doctor was grounded, despite his obvious experience in the field. The Padre had a lot going on, including his lack of experience with war and his own ‘temptations.’ Hallowed Ground is an excellent snapshot of men possibly facing their own demise more quickly than they’d ever hoped. About how letting their guard down is less complicated under those circumstances. Well crafted and well named, it’s another very good read in this anthology.
10) A Rooted Sorrow – Adam Fitzroy
These days, when Mrs Mercer’s nerves were strained to breaking-point, Miss Woakes was often the only company she could bear. When Miss Woakes came to the cottage they would drink tea and talk about their gardens, their knitting, Church – in short, any subject but the one uppermost in both their minds.
Mrs Mercer is a widow who has also lost her only living (child) son to the War. Her son Simon’s closest friend, Alfred, has returned, but with the loss of both his eyes as well as damaged hands. Simon and Alfred loved nature and all that went with it. They’d often travel into Four Acre Wood to observe the badger sett together, and Simon kept notes and a diary about his observations.
Alfred Jessup’s first appearance in the diary was in 1904, when he would have been about ten. Both ‘only children’ in a village which generally ran to large families, they had somehow gravitated together.
On one visit Miss Woakes tells Mrs Mercer that Alfred has asked about the badger sett and that motivates Simon’s mother to gather her son’s diaries and notes to take out to Alfred. He can’t read them but perhaps someone else can. Perhaps she can.
A Rooted Sorrow looks at life during the Great War from the perspective of those who have lost loved ones. It draws an amazing picture of village life in England during that time, including behaviours, beliefs, and realisations – some which transcend the typical attitudes of the time. The story is bittersweet yet hopeful, I’ll admit to being quite teary as the book revealed more and more about the characters and their feelings. The characterisations were brilliant – I intensely disliked Dr Mercer, even though he had passed, I loved Simon, Alfred, Mrs Mercer; and Joseph was another who was so well drawn.
You definitely need to read it to get the full picture – it’s hard to do justice to in a review – but it’s another beautiful addition to the anthology.
“I like the way you talk about him,” he said. “It makes it seem as if he could walk into the room at any moment.”
11) At the Gate – Jay Lewis Taylor
Sub-Lieutenant John Davis is a ship’s doctor on the Arion, or the Slug as she is fondly named. Lieutenant-Commander Alan Kershaw is his senior officer and the ship’s surgeon. Kershaw was Davis’s Uncle Grant’s closest friend. One he lost at Jutland. Davis joined the Royal Navy because of his uncle but what he doesn’t know is that Uncle Grant and his senior officer were lovers. Grant asked Kershaw to look out for Davis after he joined and he takes Grant’s request very seriously.
Davis is feeling nervous once he finds out that they have orders to go to Zeebrugge – he’s never slept with a girl, let alone his girlfriend – and goes to Kershaw with his fears and concerns about how someone can cope with the nerves.
“… Believe me, when it comes to the point – and I was at Jutland too, I know what it’s like – ” his ship sank while I watched, and I couldn’t talk about him, not to a single soul – “you just keep on at the job and, and if you’re still alive at the end of it, it’s a bloody surprise and you go and drink yourself blotto to celebrate being alive.” Or to forget…
The Arion hits mines and the feeling of being on a sinking ship are quite intense and believable, which is amazing given the word count.
At the Gate is another piece of quality writing to add to the different services and people of WWI.
12) After & Before – Sam Evans
This story begins with Doctor Robert Wallace being ‘disturbed’ by nurses who fuss and bring him tea and meals. He knows they are looking out for him, but he’s been through a lot in his life already and his demeanour often shows it. Robert wears braces and uses a cane to walk after injuries he received in a motorbike accident just before the war. Now it’s 1918 and he’s convalesced to the point where he is the doctor for troops who have been injured in battle and brought to his family estate – which has been converted into a wartime hospital. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, it takes a lot just to walk from his desk to the door of his office, let alone the halls/wards.
Go back four years and you get a snapshot of Robert’s life post accident – his father’s attitudes toward him, his disappointment Robert was injured. Injured on a bike and not able to enlist for the war effort.
Albert was obviously right. He would never go to fight for his country. His damned stupid mangled legs prevented him. Like those people who didn’t require a cripple in their practice, the propaganda machine didn’t require a cripple on the Front Line either. There was no room for men like him – a fact Robert had still not accepted.
Then there’s Wilf, Robert’s lover of fifteen years. Wilf is a big, strapping man who works on the Wallace estate. Before the War he would slip into Robert’s room of a night to be with his partner. On one such night things are a bit different, there’s something Wilf needs to say. He’s been into Manchester and signed up. Robert understands but he doesn’t want him to go. He knows he’ll miss the man he loves. That he can’t even join to be there with him is now more glaringly obvious.
After & Before looks at someone serving in their own way. Someone also left behind who already carries injuries of his own. Again there is the fear of losing someone you love to the War. This is another angle on the running theme of the anthology, and it’s both tender and genuine.
13) Anh Sang – Barry Brennessel
This story covers the period of 1908 – 1918 in French Indochina and looks at the relationship of two boys who first meet when young and their developing relationship pre and during WWI.
Twelve year old Minh goes to help a boy who is chasing after a pig. Most surprisingly the boy lets the pig go – he’s named him (Napoleon) and doesn’t want him killed and eaten. He’s given the pig freedom. He’ll be punished by his father but it’s worth it to him. So Bui Van Minh meets Ngo Cong Thao for the first time. Minh has feelings stirred by Thao’s beauty. Even at twelve Thao has a way of looking for the silver lining and Minh is more pragmatic.
“A pig is so valuable! You cost your father a lot of money just now.” Who was this boy to do such an inane thing like that? To squander his father’s hard work and income. (…)
“Do you always think the worst will happen?” the boy asked.
“Are you always so impetuous?
The boy scowled. “That’s a big word.”
I like to study words. It’s not a crime.”
The boys meet again in 1910 on a day when Thao’s face is black and blue – apparently Thao granted another pig freedom. Despite the bruises, Minh still finds Thao beautiful.
Then it jumps forward to 1917, and war rages in Europe. France expects its colonies to support them, but Minh hasn’t been called up and is miraculously employed at a local French restaurant, La Fourchette. With little employment available and no experience he is surprisingly hand-picked to work. He’s grateful for the job and money as his father is dead and his mother blind. Up until now Minh and Thao have met sporadically. But Thao is supplying La Fourchette with pork, and once they cross paths again – they are now twenty one – it seems neither has forgotten the attraction they have for the other. Thao makes sure he lets Minh knows exactly how he feels and they become more than good friends.
Meanwhile, events occur that may support Minh’s reserved attitude and less of Thao’s optimism. People living in the region decide that now might be a good time to revolt against French rule and authority. Minh’s mother’s words reflect the general sentiment when they want her son to fight in France for France.
“Their war,” his mother repeated. “We have no business in it. And France has no business here.”
Barry Brennessel was the only author who wrote a story that was set outside Europe. It’s very fitting because many people from French Indochina were conscripted to fight in Europe. The author has a way of capturing innocence juxtaposed against something darker, and Minh and Thao definitely fit that scenario. The whole anthology shows innocence lost in a (modern) war. In Anh Sang it’s not only the War, but the sentiments of the people about that war and the French subjugation of their land and its people. While I would have loved a longer story of these two characters, this region, I’ll take what I can get. Beautiful storytelling from a wonderful author.
A Pride of Poppies is a quality anthology. There isn’t one story I didn’t enjoy. The editing is superb and the writing exceedingly good to sublime. I had only previously read Barry Brennessel and Charlie Cochrane so the other authors were unknown to me, I could not believe the depth and breadth of storytelling in each and every individual story. Only a couple have more length, the rest are quite short, but the word count meant absolutely nothing, other than a few of these stories would make even better novellas/books. Each story above is listed in order, and even if you aren’t interested in all of them the money spent on this anthology will be worth it, such is the quality. 5 Stars!