A guest review by Erastes
James Semerad is a young gay man who grew up Amish in the secluded Amish community of Lofstad in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He’s trying to build a new life in the modern world after fleeing the repressive Amish world of his youth, which rejected him. Just as James is growing accustomed to living a modern-day life in the big city of Philadelphia, though, he meets Fred Billingsley, an old-money Main Line lawyer who is also a flamboyantly gay man. Fred picks James up after going through his checkout line at Whole Foods, and they go out on James’ first date ever with another man. But what starts out as a fun date turns into a wild shootout—–Fred is a lawyer to the Philadelphia mob, and he has unwittingly dragged James into the middle of a mob war. Their only safe haven is to go into witness protection in the secluded Amish community of Lofstad, the repressive, devout place where James grew up.
This is called “the gay Witness” and as you can see by the blurb, the plot is very similar.
We are told many many times over the first few pages about how inexperienced, how innocent, how naive James is–despite having lived in an Amish Half-way house (don’t those places help to educate?) so it’s no surprise to anyone when he gets into a car with a stranger more than twice his age–telling no-one where he’s going. Surely they have axes in Amish world.
The time line is a bit baffling – it’s not said how old Fred is, other than he’s a “hottie” but considering he has two degrees (cookery and law) has worked for five years in a NY restaurant, would need an undergrad degree for Harvard, and would need many years experience before becoming a criminal lawyer for the mob – he must be at least 40 if not more. James’ age seems to waver all over the place, too. Sometimes it’s two years since he left his Amish community, sometimes three.
This repetition is a theme throughout the book, which became a little wearing – the author either had to repeat things many times, in case we hadn’t got the point the first time or fifth time. For instance, by page thirty, we still need to be reminded that:
James was a shy, closeted gay man who didn’t really know what it was like to be gay.
Despite being told this many many times on page one.
There’s some really peculiar continuity in the book. First they set off to drive from Philadelphia to Lancaster County, which we are told is three hours – it isn’t, it’s just over one. Then after one hour, they are forced to stop because the Mafia is following them, and the FBI transfer them into a buggy for the last stretch. I had two queries at this point: If it was going to take another 2 hours by car then how long was it going to take to get there by buggy, as it must be over 100 miles going on the “it takes 2 hours” theory – and if they had to stop suddenly because of the Mafia tail – how on earth did the buggy manage to get from Lancaster County to their rendezvous almost immediately?
Then we are told that it’s pitch black. They can see nothing at all -however, when this turbo buggy does arrive, we get this:
…tied the reins to a hook on the side of the immaculate, old-fashioned vehicle, its coat of black paint as clean and shiny as a mirror. He wore the trademark black felt hat, gray homespun shirt, and blue overalls of a Lancaster County Amish man. His white beard covered only his chin; his mustache was clean-shaven off in homage to Amish tradition, which considered mustaches a symbol of godless military officers. According to another Amish tradition, his homespun shirt was kept closed with invisible hooks and eyes (buttons were a sign of vanity) and his suspenders were very plain, the same drab gray of his shirt, so much so that they were almost invisible. He looked much older than James remembered; his beard was snow white, his back stooped, his skin like old leather…
Not bad for pitch dark. I’m impressed that James can see invisible hooks and eyes in the conditions. From inside the armoured car. With the tinted windows. and as you can see, more repetition.
I found it very difficult to like Fred; We are never told what he looks like, which doesn’t help – and not only does he pick up James and whisk him off to a remote location with the obvious seduction in mind, but he then proceeds to get him drunk, watches him pass out, then when they are secreted away in the panic room, seduces him, (as machine guns rattle outside) despite the fact that he’s too drunk to resist. Then, when they are forced to go to the Amish community in the Witness Protection he behaves like a sulky teenager, despite the fact it’s actually his fault.
I couldn’t warm to James either–like Angel in Angel’s Evolution–I found myself sympathising with anyone who wanted to beat the shit out of James because he never stopped alternating between unbelievable naivete (in spite of spending 3 years away from the Amish) and almost constant whining.
I have to say that I found it rather a laboured read. Not really bad, exactly, but it was more a collection of “now they do this and now they do that” rather than allowing the reader to get close to the characters, into their heads and create an empathy for them. There’s too much description which seems for description’s sake such as describing every aspect of meals and (for example) a Wedgwood service outlined in 24 carat gold–I found myself wondering how on earth James knew this. And there’s much that simply doesn’t make any sense, such as the congregation saying a prayer “in English, out of respect for our outside guests.” when both “outside guests” are (as far as the community knows) AMISH! There’s also far too much info-dumping in the style of Dan Brown’s “I’ve done this reading on Wikipedia and I’m jolly well going to share it with you!”
I had enough problems with the issues above, but then the second half of the book becomes totally risible. The mob find them almost immediately–so much for Witness Protection–the “Family” and the “Feds” invade the village at the same time and there’s a ludicrous shoot out where the mob fire a billion or so bullets into a barn at James and Fred–who are entirely unarmed–and then when the Mob run out of bullets, they clear off! Which of course is exactly what would happen. And of course, despite being shot in the arm James and Fred have sex during the shoot-out. Because that’s also what would happen. The ending? Well, if you’ve seen Witness, you’ll know how the danger is resolved. I’m all for re-tellings, but please, make them original-ish.
Also, and this has been discussed on this site, I’m always entirely put off when the anus is constantly referred to as a “rose” or a “rosette”. Anyone who describes it thusly has never actually looked at one, as far as I’m concerned.
But when it comes down to it, I think what didn’t work for me the most is that the demonising of the Amish. The only “decent” Amish portrayed are either gay, gay-friendly, or not-Amish and just pretending to be.
Yes, the Amish live a life that I wouldn’t want to live, but no-one is forced to live it and from what I’ve always read and researched about the Amish they are peaceful–and family and community is all. The description of the The Shunning in this book doesn’t match with any research I could find on line, but I could be entirely wrong. I found that the families don’t eat at the same table as the Shunned one, but in this book, James is half starved (only giving food by charity) – has to live in a pigsty, this seemed odd, as the Shunning is supposed to encourage the “wrongdoer” back into the flock (or to make them leave) and as James had (on the surface, at least) returned as the prodigal son, it made absolutely no sense to Shun him again – as the original Shunning had worked.
The research I’ve read over the last week seems to indicate that yes, a family member wouldn’t eat with the family, but they wouldn’t feed him scraps, or make him sleep with the animals (or make him plow the land without horses) but he would eat on a small separate table alone. You don’t need to do more, in a small community, than ignore someone for the impact to be felt, after all. They will either recant, or leave. I’ve lived in tiny Catholic communities in Ireland, and I’ve seen this done…
James’ father is the Elder of the village, and yet he’s portrayed as a nasty, brutal, malicious man
“His father might be senior deacon of the village, but that didn’t mean he was well acquainted with the Christian notion of forgiveness”
Which struck me as quite peculiar, as from what I’ve read, forgiveness is the basic tenet of the faith, and I found it hard that any man who was that unreasonable would be kept on as Elder for long.
In Amish eyes, the Church is responsible to God to hold members accountable to their baptismal vows. Member who violate Church regulations receive ample opportunities to repent. If transgressors accept their errors and accept discipline, they are pardoned and restored to fellowship
I feel uncomfortable that this story vilifies the Amish so. James even goes so far–in another bout of whining–as to say that the Amish hymns are a “form of mind control” which had my chin landing on the desk. If it had been written by an Amish–or ex-Amish member, I could understand it, but it’s not. However, my research consisted of what I could glean while reading this book – so if anyone has information that backs up the book, I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.
“Jay Hughes” is Jamaica Layne writing under a male persona, and although Ms Layne makes this clear on her Facebook page, she doesn’t do so either on her own website or the one she has set up for Mr Hughes. I think–in the light of the scrutiny and criticism many female writers with male or neutral pennames have gone through in the last few years–that it would be better for Jay Hughes’ career if “he” came clean. I have to say, that I also find it amusing that Ravenous Romance is trademarking the word “M/M.”
Editing wise it leaves a lot to be desired, there are typos and formatting errors – and at one point Jacob turns into James for almost an entire page.
To sum up: I really can’t recommend the book. The characters are entirely unsympathetic, the continuity is hopeless, the writing lumpy and repetitive, and the portrayal of a way of life that is as alien to most people as just about anything on earth is badly done.