I was going through my first Kindle the other day and came across several books by Sarah Black, all of which I just loved. I started to search for anything more recent by her but, alas it seems she has disappeared altogether from writing and the media.
Which is a shame because when it came to writing military characters, native americans and the American west, Sarah Black always got it right, that includes when she threw in a touch of mysticism.
Of course, her ability to write soldiers who spring from the page with the Marines buried in them to a cellular level came naturally from her family background and herself (she is a veteran herself). And after serving? Well, then it was to the reservations of the American West and nursing care that brought the other experience deeply home. In story after story, her characters sing of life, authenticity, pain, and something more that Sarah was able to bring out of herself and her narrative.
And it was not just her characters but the locations. The land itself spoke to Sarah on a elemental level. Posted on her Goodreads author page are some of her photographs from 2014. Moab Desert. Pictures often accompanied her travels and research. I remember especially the pictures of the bathtub Marys from Marathon Cowboys. I had no idea what they were before then. She sent me searching for more. I guess in Sarah I saw/see a kindred spirit.
Sarah’s book’s held a fair amount of controversy. Some featured disfigured Veterans which some readers didn’t want to see in their romances, and others, one of my favorite stories, featured a couple in which one half was married to a woman. Yes, I can hear it now and yes, I think it contributed to the lack of sales. Here was how Sarah addressed the issue. I thought then and I think now it was very realistic, given the times and nature of the military:
“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.
Her characterizations are multidimensional and come fully alive before your eyes, complete with a authentic back story and dialog that fits in their mouths like water in a river. It flows and carries with it the regional characters that the earth has endowed it with. As I said, I can always pick out a Sarah Black character or dialog. It doesn’t matter the subject, the locations, or the couples, they will haunt you, you will love them, and even if Sarah Black never writes another word, I am richer for having read her stories. Pick them up and get acquainted with her today.
About the Author:
I have no idea if this is still true…she moves around like the wind. She went from Boise to the South Sea Islands to Seattle back to Boise. I was surprised that she hadn’t made the desert home again. But if you click on her website they ask if you want the Japanese translated, don’t bother. Its not her. Same for her twitter account.
“Sarah Black is a fiction writer living again in beautiful Boise, Idaho, the jewel of the American West. Sarah is a family nurse practitioner and works in a medical clinic that takes care of homeless folks (they have lots of great stories). Raised a Navy brat, she’s lived all over the country. She and her son James recently moved to Boise from the Navajo reservation in Arizona. When she isn’t writing, she’s doing something with wool. She learned weaving out on the reservation and now has her eye on an antique circular sock knitting machine.”
The author’s love and knowledge of her subjects permeates each story she writes. Whether they feature a former Navajo Marine heading into the desert or a wildlife photographer capturing the photo of the year in a river in Alaska, the authenticity her background brings to each story is unquestionable and the realistic characterizations and locations is never in doubt. I could pick up one of her stories and know it is hers without ever glancing at the cover, her voice is that unique.
Sarah Black’s stories have often informed and educated me. In Anagama Fires I learned just enough about raku pottery and the intricacies of glazes to fire my own curiousity, sending me off into the realms of research and adult education classes on pottery nearby. As a former Park Naturalist I am familiar with wildlife photography, yet she made it fresh once more with Sockeye Love, especially in the scene captured in the title. It had me laughing in joy and the delights that nature continues to surprise me with. The author’s own military background as well as her family’s shines forth in her characters with their own Marine backstories. In Border Roads 4 members from a platoon return home from Iraq and try to reintegrate in the society they left behind. These veterans are scarred physically and emotionally, holding onto the brotherhood formed in war to help see them through the trenches and ambushes of life back at home. One character is so physically disfigured he hides behind a kerchief, ashamed of how he looks and feeds. Black’s background as a clinic nurse brings this character close to our heart, helps us understand some of the mental and physical challenges he is going through, gives us a man in pain, instead of a victim. I always thought it was a shame this book was narrowed down to m/m fiction as that covered only two of the men from the platoon, the other two were heterosexual. I think it is possible that the inclusion of m/f content hurt this book and caused it to have a lower following than her other books. Either way, this is an incredible book of injured veterans returning home, an issue that will be with us for some time to come. A hard, painful must read.
The only time Sarah Black has lost me so far is in Slackline. Slacklining is a practice in which a 1 inch nylon rope is strung between two anchor points. The rope is not tightly strung as in tightroping but looser so it has a degree of play so the rope becomes dynamic (in some cases stretching and bouncing to allow stunts and tricks). In other words, slack not tight. The main character injures himself when attempting to cross the sea of Hoy off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland on a slackline. He was by himself, no backup, no one knew he was there, he was trespassing and didn’t take into account the high winds off the sea and up the cliffs. I started off thinking what an idiot and unfortunately that impression never left me. I will give Sarah Black credit in that the character knew he was flouting slackling rules as well as the local laws, but such stupendous stupidity (especially as a Park Naturalist who has seen people do incredibly insane things in nature) left me with no connection to this character and therefore to the story. But one out of all I have read? I would love to have those odds at the track.
And finally when Sarah Black gives you a character that combines her love of the Navajo people and the military, then you have characters that will stay with you long after the book has ended. Lorenzo Maryboy, Navajo, former Marine and cartoonist (Marathon Cowboys) or Code Talker Logan Kee of Murder at Black Dog Springs still linger on, in my heart and thoughts. Give them a chance to introduce themselves to you. I know you will love them. I know you will love Sarah Black.
You can find her at her website: Sarah Black Writes (no longer viable) She has free reads there for the taking.