Whose Side Are You On Anyway? Thoughts on The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black

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As you all know I loved The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black but I realized that some readers would take issue with the fact that Gabriel Sanchez was married with children while he still continued to see the General on the down low as it were.  I could hear the questions forming in little balloons over my head.  How do you have an honorable man who, at least in one part of his life, act less than honorably?  What about his family?  Well, one of the reasons I loved this story is that, like real life, the relationships between John and Gabriel (and Martha) were messy and complicated.  Gabriel wanted a family during a time when being outwardly gay would have made that an impossibility. So Gabriel got married, something that tore John up.  But Gabriel intended to be a good and faithful husband to Martha. He cared, even loved her, then the reality of what he did to them all by marrying her set in with shattering consequences.

For the last week, The Washington Post printed letters from the children of two gay men from the same era, each married a woman and had a family. For one man, it drove him to despair and bitterness with a family that functioned not at all (“My Father’s Gay Marriage, The Washington Post, 4/5/2013).  For the other, the father came out after years in a loving marriage but unable to deny his true sexuality any longer (“My Loving Gay Dad”, The Washington Post, 4/10/2013).  In total contrast, his wife accepted him and his sexuality, so did his children.  What a difference between those two marriages.  Gabriel and Martha’s falls somewhere in between.  I know that many gay men married, hoping that the marriage would change their sexuality or help them deny who they really were.  Some still do.  And others, like Gabriel, realize that who they love and who they are should not be buried in a closet or be seen as a burden to be carried alone.  Think of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, now happily living with his partner, and others now coming out of the closet ,then think about the era they grew up in.  Such different times than the one we live in today.

Another element of Sarah Black’s story that I appreciated is that Martha Sanchez is not a one-dimensional “bitch”, a characterization I have seen in other books and not just the m/m genre.  She is a real woman, whose marriage has fallen apart and her life completely in turmoil.  She hurts and reacts to that pain by wanting Gabriel to hurt as much as she does, so realistically is Martha portrayed that you do feel for her.  It is inferred that their marriage was in trouble for some time (something she mentioned to her son). As it is when most marriages fail, it takes two people to contribute to that collapse. This part of the story felt painful because in real life, it hurts and the people involved react because of the way they are feeling now and their expectations upon entering the marriage.

So when I read that Sarah Black wrote a post called “Whose Side Are You On Anyway” about Martha Sanchez, I knew I wanted to repost it here, and have done so with her approval.  I know that for some people, they never want to see cheating in their stories (oh the blogs I have read about that) and for others, it is not a problem as long as it works within the story.  I think here it absolutely works within the story.   Let me know what you think.

 Whose Side Are You On Anyway by Sarah Black

I nearly stopped writing The General and the Horse-Lord about halfway through. The problem? Martha. She was sitting in the car with the general, and she was telling him what she had done to try and ruin his life. And I was like, you go, girl! You want a baseball bat? I’ll tell you where Gabriel has his pickup truck parked.

I was totally on her side. I thought she was being a little too restrained in her revenge, because, I mean, these guys had cheated on her! They had been cheating since before she was married! She deserved some revenge.

But wait a minute, the guys, they’re the heroes, right? How can the ex-wife possible become a Valkyrie in the middle of the story? So I stopped to think about it all.

When you’re writing the rough draft, you do it intuitively, what I call ‘doing it like Kerouac.’ Just let the words flow like a river. Then when you start to revise, you think about things like motivation, behavior. Why does he do that? What am I really trying to say? Once you can be clear about what your point is, you can revise to hone the point.

So I’m trying to think, why was I so totally on Martha’s side? Well, I’m a woman, of course. There is no woman in the world who wouldn’t look at this situation and hand Martha a baseball bat. The fact that she is very self-contained and proud meant she did it a different way.

But John and Gabriel, they had been in love for years before Martha ever entered the picture. They would have made a life together, and it wasn’t Martha who kept them apart. In a different world, they would have made different choices. When basic human rights are kept from people, they’re not the only ones harmed. The harm flows down over all the people they love, the people they know, even just the people who stand as witnesses.

We’re all harmed when human rights are denied. In this story, John and Gabriel were not the only people hurt. They tried in their own ways to contain the pain, but it flows down, over Martha, over the kids, over Kim, who watched this growing up. I decided all I could do is write the story and not take anyone’s side. Martha, I totally feel it. I am going to find you a wonderful guy to fall in love with, I promise you, somebody who deserves a woman as smart and strong as you are. Just be patient.

(And in response to a question from a reader about the marriage between Martha and Gabriel):

I guess what I didn’t write clearly enough was that we don’t really know what happened in Gabriel and Martha’s marriage. The POV character was John and he always stayed away from it. And two people don’t divorce after twenty years of marriage and two kids and it’s all just one issue or one person to blame- to my mind, writing this story, they were two people who tried to make a marriage and failed, and the fact that Gabriel was in love with John during that time, and seeing him, was not the reason the marriage failed. It was the reason Gabriel stopped trying, but if they had been happily married, they wouldn’t have been fighting for a year before the divorce, as Juan told Kim. We don’t know what happened to their marriage, because neither one of them was the POV character. We only know what John sees.

The point of honor I can’t back away from is I feel like I want my characters to tell the truth. I’m 52. I’ve seen a lot of marriages fail. And it is never easy and it’s never just one person’s fault. And I wrote this story with what I saw as characters being truthful, even knowing I would get hammered for it. These characters, Martha and the kids, they are still Gabriel’s family. It’s not like they’re going to dissapear and the guys can dance off into the sunset. Consequences of our actions roll on down like water, and Gabriel will be dealing with the fallout for the rest of his life. His fictional life, I mean!

I know we would all like our heros to have guilt free loves that are HEA, free of too much angst and turmoil.  Those stories are lovely to read and make everyone feel good.  But there is plenty of room for love stories where the path to HEA or even HFN is gritty, complicated and oh so human.  People get hurt, lives get shattered and to takes time for all involved to heal and move on if possible.  I love those too, perhaps even more so because they are realistic and well, grown up.

The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black fits into my second category here and I appreciate it because of the realistic choices the men make throughout their lives.  Not ones we would have necessarily wanted them to make, but ones that they felt were the ones they (and others) felt like they had to make at that time.  The choices made by the men in the story and in the Letters to the Editor at The Washington Post are ones that are made less frequently now as more states legalize gay marriage and gay adoptions.  Society’s views are changing, albeit more slowly than we would wish.  Still Stonewall wasn’t that long ago, something we tend to forget in our disapproval over gays/lesbians cheating outside their straight marriages. The change in human and civil rights has occurred in a short amount of time and stories like these bring that back front and center as well as put a human face to a very real state of mind from the past.

The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black – read my review here.

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