Story Rating: 5 stars
Audio Rating: 5 stars
Narrator: John Solo
Length: 11 hours 46 minutes
Semper Fi is an eminently moving story about Cal Cunningham and Jim Bennett, two young men embarking on military service during World War II. In 1942, Cal and Jim meet on the train en route to Marine boot camp at Parris Island, SC. The men couldn’t be more different: Cal is the charismatic, closeted gay son of a wealthy banker from Manhattan; Jim is a quiet farmer’s son with a wife and toddler daughter in rural, upstate New York. Regardless, they forge a close friendship that endures the hardships of war and the years afterward.
Cal and Jim fight the Japanese side by side for three years in the Pacific Theater, from island to island – including Guadalcanal and Pelepiu – culminating in horrific bloodshed in Okinawa where, with grim acceptance, many in their squad are resigned to die. The men are among the lucky ones who make it home – Cal back to New York City, working for his overbearing father who disapproves of most things about Cal, and Jim back to his family and Clover Grove, his apple orchard in Tivoli, NY. Because of his feelings, Cal keeps his distance from Jim until Jim’s wife, Ann, dies suddenly and Cal goes to help Jim on the farm for an extended period of time. He discovers that his work will not only be of the physical sort, but of emotional support, too, when he finds Jim is guilt-ridden over Ann’s death and suffering from combat PTSD. He must also suppress his feelings for the man he believes to be heterosexual.
Semper Fi is an exceptional book that moved me to tears, and the audio format, narrated by John Solo, is nearly flawless. The novel is comprised of two stories in one with two timelines that never converge. The chapters, in third person point of view, alternate from either Cal or Jim’s perspective, and within each chapter is a section from 1942-1945 during the war, and then with a longer section from post-war 1948. It’s very well organized and easy to follow. It doesn’t read as flashbacks, but as two connected stories being told simultaneously. The dual timeline provides an unusual and interesting structure and serves to break up the tension of wartime with the mostly lighter tones of life at Clover Grove.
I’ve read numerous military-themed romances in the MM genre, but most have featured elite special forces in more modern wars. This is the first historical novel I’ve listened to involving young troops on the front line. Andrews does an extraordinary job of conveying the wide gamut of emotions these young men experience, from the camaraderie with other Marines in their squad and the anticipation of what’s to come, to the tedium of waiting for the next attack. There’s the broken morale from harsh conditions like incessant rain and inescapable heat or cold, to sickness and the sadness from missing loved ones at home. Then there’s fear, terror, and horror on the battlefield, and finally, the relief and pure joy from being sent home. The intimacy of active duty military life gives context to Cal and Jim’s friendship and imparts just how deep their connection is. I can imagine why it’s so difficult for combat veterans to assimilate back into civilian life and how those friendships with their shared experiences would be ever so important to post-war adjustment.
Jim must also battle the demons that arise from the clash of his emotional longings and physical needs with what his religion and God are telling him is an unnatural sin, and his country and society are telling him is an abhorrent, illegal illness. Cal, fortunately, feels no such compunction. As a reader, I found that it’s one thing to have the knowledge that homosexuality was illegal in the United States — in some states not until a Supreme Court ruling made it legal in 2003 — and another to experience it through these characters we have become invested in. My heart aches for Cal and Jim because there is literally no way to avoid the law. (In the state of New York, where Semper Fi is set, the crime of consensual sodomy was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor in 1950, and homosexuality was decriminalized completely in 1980.)
Both of the main characters are immensely likeable, as are the majority of the secondary characters, including Jim’s daughter, Sophie; Mrs. O’Brien; and several war buddies. Sophie, in particular, is a star, as both an eight-year-old for the majority of the story and nine years later in the epilogue where she delivers some of the most important dialogue in the book.
Andrews’ world building is fantastic. From the grotesque and harrowing realities of war, to the flowering apple orchard of Clover Grove, the author creates a beautiful visual world beginning with the very first sentence:
“Billowing black smoke in its wake, the train swayed as it crossed the Rappahannock River, the boisterous singing and chatter of the men inside muffling the creaking wood of the ancient cars.”
The language used is authentic to the period. For example, sexual urges are quaintly referred to as “base desires.” Speaking of sex, it’s both beautiful and hot. Cal has been attracted to Jim since they met, and when Jim begins to return those feelings of romantic and sexual love, their bond shifts into something that encompasses more than just friendship; the strength of their chemistry will make your toes curl.
John Solo delivers a near perfect narration. His voice modulation is spot-on for creating an engrossing audiobook. Cal and Jim’s voices are clear and distinct and reflect their personalities nicely: gregarious, patient Cal and reserved, ambivalent Jim. There are many secondary characters in the book and Solo handles then all with aplomb, from the deep, booming, intimidating voice of Tyrell the drill instructor, to fellow Marines Joe with his Southern drawl, and young, squeaky-voiced Sully. Then there are the numerous women, including Cal’s upper-crust mother, little Sophie, and Mrs. O’Brien with her Irish lilt.
Kudos and thanks to Andrews for bringing the realities of war – both on the battlefield, and internally between one’s longings, conscience, and morals – to light and giving her readers greater empathy and understanding of both issues. As I read, I alternated between a fear that they would be discovered together and a dread that there would be no happy ending for this couple. How can there be when they can’t be together legally, or accepted socially by friends, family, the church and society at large? I enjoyed Semper Fi immensely and it will, without a doubt, be on my Best of 2020 list.
Note: I do feel a content/trigger warning should be provided. There are two incidents of brief but highly disturbing, graphic war violence in chapter twenty-four. The incidents accurately and effectively convey the atrocities of war and are thus appropriate to the story, but they will be too much for some listeners or readers.