Review: Tramps and Vagabonds by Aster Glenn Gray (2022)

Heat Factor: They fool around, but the real heat occurs when they start snuggling and the emotions come out.

Character Chemistry: They wrestle like puppies.

Plot: James takes care of Timothy when they’re on the road. He knows that he should send Timothy home now that winter is coming, but he doesn’t want him to leave.

Overall: This was a very interesting book, though I’m not sure I would call it swoonworthy.

Here are the things that stood out to me as I was reading this book.

First, James and Timothy are so young. Like, so so young. (James turns 20 around the midway point.) And they feel young. Yes, they’re world-weary and riding the rails during the Great Depression, so they’ve seen some shit, but they act like teenage boys a lot of the time. When girls come rowing down the river, James is sure to swing from a tree branch with his shirt off so they can see his muscles. (Timothy is not impressed by James’ posturing.) When Timothy wants to talk about his feelings, James tackles him. They do a lot of wrestling and rolling around pushing and teasing—which sometimes leads to some mutual masturbation, but that’s normal for two guys, right?

That brings me to point number two: the portrayal of homosexuality. Let me say right off the bat that there is definitely some period-appropriate homophobia that occurs, including by James. See, James fools around with men because sometimes it’s convenient, and sometimes because it’s necessary for his survival (including once to make sure Timothy can sleep safely inside during a storm; Timothy does not appreciate this gesture). The idea that homosexual activity equates to homosexual identity is not fixed here, and I found the conversations that James and Timothy have about desires and labels pretty interesting.

Gray’s portrayal of tramp life successfully walks a narrow line between idyllic beauty and harsh realities. The boys travel all over the Midwest and eat pie and swim and go to carnivals. But they also get beat up by police and get sick and sleep rough. They run into people James knows, and hear about others who are dead or in jail. The road is a place of sexual acceptance, and the camps a place where men can be publicly affectionate without fear, but sexual danger also lurks all over the fringes of this novel. 

The romance as it unfolds is sort of bittersweet. When Timothy wants to hold James, James is uncomfortable not only because he doesn’t see himself as queer, but because affectionate touch has not been part of his life for so long. And for most of the book, James and Timothy can’t imagine a life together. Timothy wants to stay on the road with James. James knows that the road is dangerous and, in the central conflict of the book, sends Timothy home—but James can’t just stay with Timothy’s family. There’s space for James and Timothy to be together when they’re traveling, but not when they’re in regular society. I will say that the resolution that allows them to find a place where they can learn and work and love each other in (relative) safety felt a little deus ex machina, but I was glad that they were able to find a way to be together.

Because the writing style was on the detached side—it’s third person, only from James’ perspective, but not closely in his mind—I didn’t feel a lot of emotional ups and downs as I read this book. I was definitely intrigued by the story and loved all the historical details, but I wasn’t swept away. I also wouldn’t call this a fun read, precisely, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Definitely recommended for readers who are interested in historical romances outside the regency.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon

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