Rating: 4.75 stars
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The Door Behind Us by John C. Houser deals with more than two men healing from the devastating aftereffects of a bloody and savage World War I. Rather, it climbs the lofty hill of investigating how one person can reach beyond his own sense of bewilderment and shock to help another deal with his own. Not only that, it manages to be forgiving and respectful of religious zealots who rarely extend that same respect, and sheds light on how the sensitivities of a prohibition era world deals with the “deviance” it saw as homosexuality. Author John C. Houser delves into all these areas while wrapping them up in the guise of a sweeping and beautiful romance that speaks with unutterable tenderness of a first love for both his main characters.
Frank Huddleston has returned from the war a shadow of his former self. In fact, he is not even that since each day he needs carefully written notes to remember his own name and that of his grandparents with whom he is now living. Eddy, his grandmother, is a rigid, unforgiving woman who rules her farmhouse with an iron fist. So it isn’t surprising when we find that she refuses to speak of Frank’s deceased parents. His mother had defied Eddy by marrying and leaving the family farm. To make matters worse, she had married a Quaker. Known for their formal language and pacifism, it was surprising to later find that Frank had been involved in the war at all.
As the story unravels and the reader discovers that both Frank’s parents succumbed to the Spanish Influenza while Frank drove an ambulance to aid the war in the south of France, it becomes clear that any riddle solving as regards his past would have to be done where his parents formerly lived and not on the family farm. But how is a young man who can not even remember the names of those he lived with going to venture to the city alone? Better yet, where does the kind of courage that requireS come from since Frank is barely able to function without constant supervision? Enter, Jersey Rohn.
Jersey is the classic shell-shocked soldier. After seeing his best friend and commanding officer shot down due to a battlefield decision he made, Jersey is wounded and loses his leg. Now home and going through the healing needed in order to be healthy enough to be fitted for a prosthetic, Jersey grapples with his own very real demons. Large crowds, sharp and sudden noises and, at times, life in general cause Jersey to dissolve in what is akin to an epileptic fit accompanied by moments of near catatonia where he feels himself back on the battlefield gripped in the horrors he witnessed. Moreover, most nights he is plagued by heart-stopping dreams that eat at him even in his waking moments. He lives the nightmare he had survived and now, returning to his parent’s farm, he faces a life full of uncertainties and no plan for how to live in this post battle world.
Answering an ad to help Frank around the farm, Jersey becomes key in helping Frank begin to unlock his short-term memory loss. While the past is still elusive at best, Jersey is a soothing presence that allows Frank to begin healing. However, his religiously repressed grandmother is not only wary of the relationship she sees forming between the two men, she is also a vicious bigot where it concerns Jersey’s half-German ancestry. After she sends Jersey away, the two men meet again and decide that the only way to break through Frank’s locked past is to go to the home of his deceased parents and find those who might remember him before the war.
However, this is the early 1900s and two men who find themselves attracted to each other must hide very carefully. Not only that, but long held religious beliefs that have been ingrained in both Frank and Jersey cause such great self-doubt and fear that they are harming the other by their very longing and beginning feelings of love. So many things hinder them. Will Jersey and Frank be able to surmount it all and find happiness with each other?
So so many layers to this story, so many amazing moments between two well-crafted and endearing characters that capture you immediately. The America of the past is well done, and the created streets of Philadelphia and the farmlands of Michigan are so convincing that there is never a moment in this historical romance that felt forced or out of sync. However, beyond this delightful world building and blazingly real men is a story that compels the reader to push on faster and faster, virtually eating the chapters that would bring Frank and Jersey into each other’s arms where they belong.
John C. Houser is a new author for me and certainly will be one whose work I will seek out in future. He is a master storyteller, much like his character Jersey. His story captivates you, drawing you in, where you feel the pain these two men suffer due to their own misconceived shortcomings and the restrictions society places on their burgeoning relationship. The endless struggles that Frank meets in trying to discover his past memories and life as well as the physical pain Jersey endures as he attempts to maneuver his life in crutches is written with such clarity and depth that you feel the raw emotions produced by their hardships.
I also enjoyed the way in which the majority of the story was actually a series of flash forward encounters between a Vietnam War era psychiatrist and his soldier patient. It was comforting in many ways to know that Jersey and Frank remained together and flourished. I think the only drawback to the novel is the lack of tie up in Frank’s own life. By novel’s end we are made aware of how Jersey fared and even allowed a peek into his present life with Frank, but we are left in the dark about whether or not Frank ever recovered his memory fully and what had occupied the intervening years for him. While this wasn’t a huge bother to me, I still felt it was a rather important plot point that never got resolved.
However, despite that The Door Behind Us by John C. Houser is an excellent novel. Intelligently written, a fascinating era, and a beautiful first love theme made this a story not to be missed! I highly recommend this work to you!
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.