Blurb: When Jack ended up at college in a small town in the middle of the Iowa cornfields, September 1981, he figured it would at least be better than being home. He had no idea. Sean was on the opposite side of the town-and-gown divide, but attraction knows no boundaries. And when personal tragedy brought them together, it was the beginning of something extraordinary.
This short story was written for the Goodreads M/M Romance group’s Hot Summer Days event.
Review: You know, more than any other story from last year’s Hot Summer Days event put on by the GoodReads M/M Romance Group, I’ve heard amazing things about this one. I’ve always wanted to read it, but you know how things go, certain stories, no matter how wonderful they may be, end up getting pushed back to read shiny, newer books or stories. I was so happy that Kaje Harper was taking part in our Canadian Authors event, because the chance to finally read this story ended up being one of the best things that could have happened. Who knows how long it might have been before I had time to read this story? A lot of you have probably read this by now as well — it certainly has an amazing overall rating at GoodReads and was probably one of the most well known stories to come out of that event last summer. If you haven’t though, I’m here to tell you that it is up there with the best shorts I’ve read in this genre, and for me, not only did Kaje seem to make all the right choices in telling this story, but those choices together transcended the sum of it’s parts, having a really solid and touching message of love overcoming obstacles.
The story is told as one long memory, bracketed in the beginning and end by the couple, Jack and Sean, as a committed partnership in the present. One look in Sean’s eyes over a morning bowl of cereal brings back the memory of how they met and how their floundering, socially challenged relationship came to be during the 80′s. It is peppered throughout with liberal references to music and pop culture, grounding the story in the time and told through the lens of a star-crossed, college and townie, West Side Story pairing. Jack is a scholarship kid to a liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, corn maze Iowa, and Sean is a local mechanic, running with the townies and secretly gay. They first meet during a clash of the two groups involving paint, vandalism and almost bruised knuckles and proceed to form a unique and private relationship away from the town’s judgmental eyes. But the fear is always there, that their secret will come out and they’ll have nowhere to go, trapped in a situation that seems to have no salvation, the only choice to fight or flee.
I think what is so successful about this story is the balance that Kaje Harper uses to bring the pieces of this story together. There are the cultural references that automatically stand out to anyone who lived through the 80′s, which is going to be most readers. There is also the balance of choosing which scenes are most important when writing a story that has enough there to fill a novel. Then, there is the balance of scene to narration. Narration is such a great vehicle to bring forward a character’s voice, but it can be so often overly used, in which case we feel cheated out of experiencing the story along with the characters. Of course, showing vs. telling is a basic lesson for authors to learn, but it can also be difficult to balance properly when you are employing narration with the use of memory or flashbacks, especially when the story covers years. I think that it is a difficult thing to pull off well, but Kaje Harper seems to really have a handle on that — I’ve read several works of hers that she’s done this very well. Still, I think this story showcases the talents of her writing the best.
This really is a powerful story. If I didn’t have to worry about spoiling anyone’s enjoyment, there is a lot more I would talk about, especially the character’s decisions in the end of the story, which surprised me with their bravery and was a bit humbling to read. I respected the hell out of these characters and I thought they were genuine in the way they came across to me.
I think that this is also a story that we can all really enjoy because it is about a time that everyone (hopefully) has in their lives. A memory of a summer, or any time in your youth where the world opened up and there were choices before you and your life seemed full of endless possibility and joy. Through that, we connect with the story and characters and understand what it is then like when that idealism is tempered with reality and we inevitably become a bit jaded. Those memories never go away, and pulling them out, dusting them off, and revisiting them gives us a little hope. To read a story like this, for me, was a different way of connecting with that endless spirit of adventure.