Every once in a while, you figure it’s time to read a book because it’s considered by many to be a classic and you want to see what the fuss is about. And besides which, it was on sale at Audible, so I finally checked out Backwards to Oregon by Jae. This is marketed as lesbian historical romance though, like a number of other reviewers, I have significant discomfort with that label. My one-sentence plot-summary might be “novelization of the classical ‘Oregon Trail’ computer game, centering a queer relationship.”
The story is very slow-moving. As in: at the pace of an ox-drawn wagon crossing the prairies slow. I think I figured out that the pacing is aimed at readers who delight in things like 500K coffee-shop AUs of their favorite characters. It isn’t the destination, but the journey. We encounter almost every milestone, obstacle, and disaster that one might find when emigrating west. The research is adequate—though one might quibble over details like how reasonable it is to be enjoying lemonade in the middle of a primitive trek through the Great Plains—and the writing is solid, except for a tendency to repeat descriptions, character thoughts, and reactions over and over again. Which…I’ll get back to.
But I can’t recommend this book. It’s a book that had a fleeting moment of zeitgeist between the time when a queer historical novel became a marketable possibility and when reader expectations around the depiction of gender and sexuality became more nuanced. Because if you listen to what the characters are thinking and saying, this isn’t a lesbian romance, this is the story of a trans man, and of a woman who never actually respects his stated identity or his personal boundaries. A woman who has a (historically accurate) obliviousness to the concept of consent. And a relationship made excruciating by everyone’s refusal to make any attempt at genuine communication.
Luke regularly thinks (and eventually says) that he thinks of himself as a man, he is most comfortable living as a man, and (though he doesn’t use the specific terminology) he has significant dysphoria around anyone, including his partner, viewing him disrobed. This situation is “solved” in the story by Nora wearing him down and insisting on interacting with his body as a female body until he stops protesting. When Nora believed him to be assigned-male, her disregard for his boundaries involved repeatedly trying to initiate an erotic component to their marriage despite Luke’s refusal to do so. Nora, mind you, has her own issues as a former prostitute who entered into the marriage understanding it to be a mutually-beneficial business relationship. She wants a future for herself and her child (soon to be children) away from the brothel; Luke wants a beard and the doubling of land allotted to a married settler versus a single man.
Luke is a gentleman and a great guy, and seems to be the perfect husband for a woman who’s had quite enough of men’s sexual needs for a lifetime. Yet Nora repeatedly mulls over how it isn’t a “real” marriage because they haven’t had sex. (Insert asexual wince here.)
Because of the repetitive structure of the prose, we experience these issues over and over again. We get to hear repeatedly about how and why each of them has trust issues. About how their past trauma informs their present reflexes. About the mistaken ideas each has about the other’s motivations (that overwhelm every bit of actual progress they make along the way). Over and over again. And then – all of a sudden, we get the requisite extended sex scene, a final crisis, a bit of plot-whiplash that comes out of nowhere, and it’s done. And they live happily ever after with their horse ranch in Oregon.
This book needs all the content warnings: domestic violence, cliff-hanging peril, secondary character death, homophobia, the aforementioned trans erasure and violation of personal boundaries, oh and also cartoonish Hollywood-style portrayals of Native Americans. Even with all that, I can see why the book is popular among the people who like it. And back in 2007 when it was first published, the issues around the treatment of gender and sexuality wouldn’t have been quite as out of step with the times. But today all those issues can’t be ignored.