History and self-reflection fuel two new books

The Boys of Fairy Town by Jim Elledge (Chicago Review Press 2018) $30; 290 pp.

Dates, times, and old dead guys: When you were in school, that’s all history was to you: a list of years and names to memorize and then forget, 20 minutes after Finals Week. So maybe now it’s time to find a history book that’s relevant to you.

Because Chicago was considered to be a “largely male frontier city” when it was established in 1837, the Windy City has always been home to a strong population of gay men, cross-dressers and male sex workers. Here, Elledge tells the stories of some of the ones who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Take, for instance, John Wing who, says Elledge, was “a sodomite” — the word many post-Civil War Chicagoans would have used for Wing, although most people then only had a vague idea of what a sodomite was. They knew it was something bad, though, even as Wing did something good: he was a faithful diarist, and left his volumes for historical posterity.

Female impersonators were tolerated in Chicago in the latter 1800s, but sometimes only barely. Those who were most accepted were men who put their feminine sides to work as entertainers; for others, the desire for women’s clothing was meant for strictly private times. For families, such things were often an embarrassment: Elledge cites a story of “Mrs. Noonan,” who was married and worked at a nearby military fort. Despite her final wishes, the “women at the fort” went to prepare her body upon her death, and discovered that Mrs. Noonan was a man. Her third husband swore that he hadn’t known but he was ashamed, and killed himself.

Gay men posed nude for other gay men in perfectly respectful and artful ways that went mainstream. Newspapers reported on same-sex love — sometimes kindly, sometimes scandalously. Gay lectures were open to the public; entire neighborhoods became hubs of openly gay life; and living as another gender was easy until, alas, the tide started to turn in the 1940s and being gay could suddenly get a man arrested.

At first blush, it may seem like The Boys of Fairy Town is just another historical tome — dates, times, old dead guys. But look deeper and you’ll see why you should want to read it: it’s bursting with stories that are irresistible.

In his introduction, Elledge explains how he chose the tales he shares in this book, and why recording these stories for public consumption is absolutely essential. In addition to being lively and ever-relevant, the tales show an interesting historical arc of acceptance and persecution, displaying a youthful America that’s just dipping her toes into the pool of difference and duality. Readers are lent a feeling of pride but may also be particularly affected when Elledge shows the tide turning.

The Boys of Fairy Town contains nudity, but also the kind of delight you get when you come across a pile of old newspapers in Grandma’s attic: it’s quaint, informative, and entertaining. It’s totally worth your time.

Tin Man: A Novel by Sarah Winman (Putnam 2018) $23; 214 pp.

Ellis Judd rarely thought of reading anymore, though there were books piled around his apartment. They were Annie’s, so he ignored them. He mostly ignored the picture sitting among them, too, and he tried not to think about the people in it.

But, of course, that was impossible; his face was one of the three in the photograph. And there was Annie, his wife and the love of his life, five years dead from an automobile accident. And Michael, his best childhood friend.

He’d never forget the day he and Michael met: Ellis was visiting Mabel, an older woman and the local greengrocer, when Michael arrived to stay. Both 12 years old, they’d become on-the-spot friends. Years later, Michael was the reason Ellis met Annie, and she instantly loved him, too. Ellis was glad for it.

But not too long after Annie and Ellis were married, Michael seemed to disappear and Annie pestered Ellis on and off. Didn’t he wonder where Michael had gone? Didn’t he want him back in his life? Didn’t Ellis miss his best friend?

He did — and one day, Michael walked back in, as if nothing had happened and things seemed to pick up where they left off. Ellis was content again with his day-to-day until the car accident, and his entire world died.

It took a while to heal — as if that would ever fully happen — but his losses made distant memories keener, and Ellis began thinking about a painting that his mother and Michael had particularly loved. Having it would mean a lot so, knowing that it was stored in his father’s attic, Ellis fetched it. That’s when he found a boxful of Michael’s things, including a notebook.

There are a thousand emotions that you’ll feel when you read Tin Man, starting with a melancholy sense of foreboding. Don’t beat yourself up for it, though. Every character here has reason to feel that life is no good.

That alone might make you not want to read this book — why try something when you know it’s going to depress you, right? Wrong: Winman also repeatedly offers a most persistent flame of hope in her story, from Ellis’ mother, who finds beauty in a booby-prize painting; to Annie, who happily understands Michael’s needs; and Ellis himself, who learns again what he already knew.

Truth be known, readers will know it, too, long before they get to the pinnacle of this book. But the love-story-not-love-story that pulses to the lingering end is worth the journey, times two. And that makes Tin Man a book you should picture yourself reading. █

— Terri Schlichenmeyer