It was an experiment, letting the very first working class student into Ann Arbor medical school on scholarship. To Arthur Tor, however, it is his one chance to escape the slums of Detroit. Medicine holds particular appeal to him after a tooth infection sent his sister to an early grave. Arthur knows there was nothing to save his sister, but he is determined that medicine can help alleviate the misery of terminal cases. For the last few years, that’s how he’s supplemented his meager existence at school: offering so-called Dark Rounds to help ease the last days of people’s suffering. Or rather, the Dark Rounds and being a resurrectionist—someone who clandestinely exhumes the newly dead for use as medical cadavers.
Jesse Fair knows when a resurrectionist is hanging around a funeral. That doesn’t mean he necessarily begrudges anyone who is forced into the lucrative, though highly illegal role. Jesse himself knows what it is to be desperate for a job. He left an oppressive, if wealthy, family in Baltimore to dig graves in Michigan. And when he happens upon an attractive medical student resurrecting the most recent inhabitant in the graveyard, Jesse decides to give the man a hand. It isn’t long before he also gives Arthur Tor his heart. But just because everything about being with Arthur feels right, doesn’t mean it will be easy. A powerful and hateful judge is itching to make several examples out of a poor medical student like Arthur. To complicate matters, Jesse’s own family comes calling, hoping to manipulate him into returning home.
Resurrection Men is a historical romantic drama from author Steven Harper. Set in Michigan in the late 1890s, our gay MCs are constantly fighting and fearing the discrimination they experience. I loved the nod to historical norms, like Arthur being looked down upon for being on scholarship (thus seen as low class and unworthy), as well as for his desire to be a doctor (not a profession that has always enjoyed high status). The depiction of “resurrection” was the primary draw for me, as I became acquainted with the practice through a couple of my favorite podcasts. I was excited to see how Harper would utilize this much-needed-yet-very-illegal (if you were digging up white people anyway) practice and boy did he deliver. Robbing a grave served as the catalyst that brought Arthur and Jesse together, while highlighting how differently people viewed medicine back then.
In keeping with the delightfully macabre theme, Jesse starts out as a gravedigger and graduates to undertaker fairly early in the story. Here, too, Harper does a beautiful job showing Jesse learning the trade. During his crash course in embalming, his mentor tells him that despite how laborious (physically and mentally) the process seems, Jesse would be asked to be draining the circulatory system, packing body cavities, and sewing orifices shut for someone he loved. What I loved about that was that I then was on tenterhooks waiting to see which of Jesse’s loved ones might wind up on the embalming table. This took in greater and greater weight as that evil judge turned to increasingly dangerous methods of trying to punish Arthur for existing.
The romance that developed between Arthur and Jesse was simply delightful. Their initial meeting in a grave thrusts them together seemingly as strange bedfellows. Arthur brims with fear Jesse will turn him in for resurrecting a corpse. Jesse comes across as perfectly mercurial, yet decides to work with Arthur rather than against him. For such an inauspicious-seeming introduction, these two seemed to have an inexplicable chemistry with one another. I thought the way they related to one another, especially when not in one another’s presence, really reflected the period as well. Of course, it was thrilling for them to fumble together between the sheets, what with the heat of the moment and the forbidden nature of it all adding to the excitement. But time and again, both Arthur and Jesse are forced to evaluate what it actually means to enjoy the company of men in the late 1800s. The external pressure mounts and causes them to question if their lover actually does (or even can) truly desire a life together. Of course, Arthur and Jesse eventually sort it out and I think their relationship becomes all the stronger for it.
Finally, for all that I loved so many elements of this book and watching the relationship between Jesse and Arthur grow and develop, one of my favorite scenes was between Arthur and a cop named Turner who is fully under the thumb of that hateful judge. It’s such a small scene, but I absolutely loved the way Turner does a complete one-eighty from being a loathsome lacky to a man desperate for an answer only Arthur can give him. The prose, the imagery, the emotion of that scene were all splendid. I really loved experiencing such a tense, personal moment between Arthur and a complicated supporting character.
If you are a fan of historical romances or sweeping tales of love found then lost then found again, I cannot recommend Resurrection Men highly enough.
Note: If you are interested, here are the links to the podcasts I mentioned: https://maximumfun.org/episodes/sawbones/sawbones-corpse-theft-and-resurrection-men/ and https://www.iheart.com/podcast/105-stuff-you-should-know-26940277/episode/the-golden-age-of-grave-robbing-29467326/