Cal Cunningham and Jim Bennett meet each other on the train to Parris Island, heading to basic training in 1942. Jim was inspired to enlist after Pearl Harbor, leaving behind his wife and young daughter. And Cal joined partly to experience something new and different from his stuffy life in NYC with his wealthy banking family, and mostly to piss off his father. The two men become friends immediately and soon form an intense bond of friendship that sees them through years of war together. The experience is more horrifying than either man could have imagined and they depend upon one another for the strength and comfort that helps them make it through the war. Cal’s feelings for Jim have turned into far more than friendship, but he knows Jim will never see him that way. Yet having Jim in his life is enough for Cal, and the two survive the war by sticking together.
When the war ends, Jim returns to his apple farm and Cal returns to New York, trying to put his feelings for Jim out of his head. But when Jim’s wife dies, Cal immediately goes to support him on the farm. Being so near Jim without truly being together is painful for Cal, but he is determined to do whatever it takes to support his friend. Soon Cal begins to feel settled on the farm, growing to care for Jim’s kids and feeling fulfilled with his life in a way he has never experienced. And to Cal’s shock and delight, slowly Jim begins to return his feelings, and it seems like Cal’s wildest dreams might come true and he can be with Jim the way he has longed to for years. But Jim’s beliefs about sin are very strong, and having to hide his life is difficult for him, especially with his children. He loves Cal fiercely, but getting past his deeply ingrained beliefs is incredibly hard. Cal and Jim have finally found happiness together, but the realities of the world they live in may prove too much and prevent them from having a life together.
Semper Fi is such a lovely story of a slow building romance between two best friends who ultimately become so much more. The story starts off in 1942 when Cal and Jim first meet on the way to basic training. We then alternate between the men during the war years and 1948 when Cal goes to live with Jim on the farm. The stories are intermingled really beautifully. During the early years we follow the men as they go through training and ultimately to war. We see the battles they fight, the exhaustion and pain and fear as they trudge through jungles and desperately try to stay alive. We meet their friends, knowing they won’t all survive. And we see their friendship grow into something deep and fierce, as Cal and Jim come to rely upon and support each other intensely.
These experiences are then juxtaposed with their present day in 1948. Cal has tried to move past his feelings for Jim with no success, staying away from him rather than having to deal with the pain. But now Jim needs him and Cal would do anything for the man he loves. So he picks up and moves to the farm to help out, slowly growing to love Jim’s children and life on the farm, even as it kills him to be so close to Jim. For his part, Jim still struggles with nightmares from the war and guilt over his wife’s death. He knows he never loved her the way he should have, and now she is gone. Having Cal there is the support Jim needs, and slowly Jim begins to realize he feels more for Cal than just friendship. It terrifies Jim, and we see him really struggle with all he has been taught about homosexuality versus the very real feelings of love he has for Cal. Andrews does a great job showing us this conflict within Jim. He wants Cal desperately, but part of him feels such guilt and shame for his feelings. Given the time period, Jim’s anxiety feels very realistic. This is especially true given the fact that Jim grew up on a tiny farm interacting with few people other than his family. Though I hated seeing him hurt Cal (and himself) at times, I could also totally understand why he had trouble with the idea of being with another man.
The story divides into three parts that mark the different stages of their relationship in the post war years. The first section was a little bit on the slow end as the guys are building a friendship during the war and working together on the farm post war. So while I really enjoyed watching them get to know one another in 1942, things don’t really move forward much in 1948 beyond Cal settling into life on the farm until the end of this section. I think this part could maybe have been tightened up a bit to move us forward more quickly to where their relationship begins to change. Despite the wait, it is well worth it as these guys are scorching when they finally get together. I loved seeing the wonder Jim experiences from these early sexual encounters and the way the bonds these men have formed as friends really connect them so intensely as lovers.
I think the back and forth from past to present could have been a tough sell, but it really worked for me here. The jumps move fairly fast so we never get totally lost in one time period, preventing it from feeling jarring as we moved back and forth. Andrews also does a great job mingling these stories and keeping them connected. For example, at one point we learn something in 1948 about a secret from the war years. Then later in the book, we are back during the war and seeing the event actually happen, already knowing Cal’s secret. It enhances the scene to have that added insight and Andrews just does a great job finding that balance between the story lines in the two time periods.
So overall I just loved this one. It is clear Andrews put a lot of research into the time period, both during and after the war. It all felt completely real and I was immersed in their lives, both as Cal and Jim struggled to survive the war and then as they make a life for themselves in this tiny little farm in rural New York. The story is just beautifully done with a nice balance of angst, warmth, and plenty of heat. Oh, and the Epilogue. Loved it. I really think this is a story not to miss and I highly recommend Semper Fi.