A Guest Review by Lloyd A. Meeker
Review Summary: A beautifully-written family saga set in 19th Century Montana, centered on love between two men.
Blurb: The City of Lovely Brothers is a family saga, the history of Caladelphia Ranch, jointly owned by four brothers, Calvin, Caleb, Calhoun and Caliban Caldwell – how it grew and prospered, and how rivalry between the brothers led to its breaking up and decline. As the story evolves, it focuses on the love affair between the youngest brother, Caliban, who is lame, and Nick, one of their ranch hands, and how their relationship set the stage for the already open feud to explode and ultimately caused the demise of the ranch.
“How fragile is the memory of a generation! Individuals remember, but as their relatives, friends and neighbors pass on, only fragments of memories are left, in no way like the shared knowledge of the cohesive society of people in their prime and still active.”
So laments the nameless historian/narrator of Anel Viz’ The City of Lovely Brothers as he tries to piece together the story he wants to tell. He often speaks in this voice unique to historians–a mix of pride, possessiveness of the subject knowledge, and a detachment possible only because one views events from a safe distance. That narrator’s voice is a sharp contrast to the intensely personal struggles of the characters themselves in this compelling story.
Viz’ beautifully written family saga, set in post-Civil War Montana and stretching into the middle of the 20th century, recounts the tale of the Caldwell family.
The historian narrator’s family is connected to the tale, because they lived in Caladelphia, the Montana city that has now grown up on a significant portion of what was originally the Caldwell Ranch. Before the city, the ranch itself had been known as Caladelphia, because the four grandsons of the founding Caldwell were all named Cal. The core of the story is that of those four brothers: how they worked together, prospered, married, and fought.
Calvin, the oldest brother, becomes the authority figure upon the death of their father–who in his will divided the ranch into four deeded quarters, one for each of his sons. That fact seems a simple thing early in the story, but the significance of property ownership grows as time goes on–as it does in the story of any quarrelsome landed family. Land is wealth and power.
In the exercise of authority that Calvin carries, and the deference the brothers initially give him, Calvin begins his moral decay from a tight-lipped, frugal, hard-working rancher into a greedy and mean-spirited, domineering, and ultimately pathetic man.
Caleb, the second son, is good-natured but enigmatic. He works as hard for the common good as the rest, but until very late in the story he remains a mystery. Calhoun, the third son, is the true rancher of the family. From beginning to end he is unalterably part of the land he works, from branding and fence mending to cattle drives.
The heart of the story–both emotionally and thematically–rests with Caliban, the youngest and the most beautiful son. He is the peacemaker, the one who loves all his family, even Calvin, and aches whenever there is discord. When he’s thirteen his hip is crushed in a bad fall from a horse, and from that moment the contrast between his physical weakness and his inner strength and courage becomes an over-arching theme. Nick, a young hired hand, and Caliban gradually become lovers, and their steadfast love sheds light into all the siblings’ relationships.
The book has two voices. When writing the characters of the Montana west, Viz’ language is austere as the life he describes, whittled down to essentials. Through it we feel the impact of the seasons, the endless labor and risk of ranch life, and the simple rewards that the brothers enjoy. When the narrator speaks, it is as a sympathetic academic, giving him a loftier vantage point from which to comment on the unfolding story of the Caldwell men, their wives and their offspring.
Lovers of historical novels will enjoy this book for its depiction of rural Montana and the development of the west, including the appearance of the railroads. When automobiles appear in the story they do so with the same shock that they must have first caused in rural communities across the country. Readers will enjoy the dust, the mosquitoes, the miles between houses, and the rough wagon roads.
Lovers of romance, however, will love Caliban and Nick’s relationship–torn, stretched, accepted, and sometimes even protected by family members, and threatened by external prejudice. Their love is whole. Through good times and hard, through the gradual physical deterioration of Caliban’s hip, their steadfastness and passionate love for each other shines undiminished.
The author has been meticulous in his historical research, and the settings and descriptions carry firm authenticity. While this is not a typical genre M/M romance, it is a thoughtful and emotionally satisfying story of the love between two men in a western setting–a setting which is all too often hopelessly idealized and unrealistic. Viz is unflinching in his depiction of the hardships of ranch life of the period, and the story is more rewarding because of it.