- Book Title: Winter Kept Us Warm
- Author: Robert Gerdes
- Publisher: Wilde City Press (July 25, 2015)
- Book Length: 157 pages
- Genre: Gay, Romance, Historical
- Reviewed by: Diane
- Rating: 4 Star
- Posting Date: August 17, 2015
For the outset, it is clear that Winter Kept Us Warm is at once a labor of love for the author and a cautionary tale of disenfranchisement and disaffection. Told in memoir style it recounts the early days of a socio-political revolution that gained traction seemingly out of nowhere, with roots in the implosion of the Great Society.
Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, social revolution and staggering shifts of power form the framework for two young men flailing with identity crises in a larger world rigid and uncompromising in its expectations. Bob and Paul, one goy, the other Jewish—yet neither so fully integrated into their cultures they can’t redefine the divide between them—find common ground in what stood for intellectualism in that day and age. They also experimented—with their sexuality, with compromise, and with finding a path through the mire of defining their individualities.
Paul is the more fully formed character, the more committed, the more passionate and willing to engage. That would not be a surprise, given his social background. Bob is… for lack of a better term… a passenger, the one riding shotgun. He is the one out of his depth, out of his league, seeking friendship and camaraderie whereas it is to Paul we must look to find the nascent revolutionary. And as was typical of angry young men in the late sixties and early seventies, they tended to jump onto ideologies that today reek of naiveté and youthful idealism.
The signature event for young men in that period revolved around the draft, and I know whereof I speak. My roommate fled with her to-be-husband to Hamilton, Ontario; my own spent years of despair in mental crisis and psychotherapy. It was real. It was harsh. It informed every thought, insinuated itself into every action and reaction, it separated those who would serve from those who disagreed. It tore families apart. The Vietnam War was not just a military event happening on the other side of the world, a war without… It was also a war within, and each side on the aisle of public opinion paid a terrible price.
It is here that I part company with the tone of Winter Kept Us Warm, perhaps because I lived and breathed those events, experienced the riots and the trauma, and dove headfirst into the political and philosophical debate.
The history of the period and Bob’s tangential experiences are relayed in a matter-of-fact way: this, then that, then another thing—the visit to the induction center, a sense of relief for dodging that bullet—and yet there is a certain disconnect infusing the narrative. Events are experienced and relayed devoid of the passions that inflamed young people. They are interesting on their merits, but they fail on the metric of engagement.
They fail to tell the true story of rage and powerlessness. Of succumbing to alternative lifestyles that floated on the edge of indulgence and the middle finger to the man. They relate the civil disobedience of the day without the abject horror of bodies lying in the street and a young woman’s disbelief forever etched into our national consciousness. They fail to tell us what it felt like when King and Bobby were cut down as dreams shattered all about us.
History is more than the telling of events, it should come with wisdom and perspective, with the small details and personal acknowledgments of sacrifice and the quiet resolve of those who still believe.
The most poignant pieces revolved around Bob’s sometimes conflicted feelings for Paul and the story’s denouement as Paul succumbs to the scourge of the eighties. Bob remains contained, solitary, and almost frigid. This story is nominally his coming-of-age, yet this reader felt devoid of sympathy or even interest in his accommodations to a life experienced, yet never lived.
This is an odd review, I grant you that. The author insists we see how different, how hostile that world was compared to this one, but I’m not convinced he has accomplished that goal. Perhaps in trying to accommodate so many intellectual, sexual and philosophical facets to growing up in an age of turmoil and social change, the author did himself a disservice. For those of us for whom the memory of that time will be forever an open wound, this is history incomplete.
Nonetheless, Winter Kept Us Warm does serve as an interesting addition to the growing library of gay historical fiction. This reviewer, quite simply, wishes the author had gone further.
To rate this on the basis of my own perceptions, memory and passions is patently unfair, but on the basis of how well it measured up to meeting the author’s own expressed goals, I would not be so harsh. Four stars… because opinions are just that. Opinions.
In 1964 Bob, an inexperienced young man, begins college in Washington, DC. He plans to follow in the footsteps of JFK. Instead, he is drawn into the Vietnam War. Early on Bob befriends Paul, an intellectual and anti-war activist. He sees Paul as a kindred spirit. Both Bob and Paul grope in the dark, trying to figure out how they fit into the larger world sexually and emotionally. The novel paints a vivid picture of how alienating it was to grow up not exclusively heterosexual in that era. Younger readers need to see how different and hostile the world was then.
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