Scion of Hudson Valley aristocrats John Seward and the son of poor Irish immigrants Michael McCready have only one thing in common—they have both been broken by the First World War, John in body, Michael in spirit. Once a promising young medical student, Michael now does massages—and more—in a Bowery bathhouse, while John lives the life of a recluse in his family’s country mansion.
When Michael is blackmailed into taking a job as a gardener on the estate, their paths cross. John is too wrapped up in his own crippling pain and misery to even acknowledge Michael, while the young gardener only sees that John’s selfishness makes his servants’ lives difficult. But as time goes on, Michael realizes the extent of John’s injuries, and John realizes that Michael might hold the key to his survival.
Bonds of Earth is the kind of book that sucks you into a time far removed from the present, and makes you feel as if you’re living there, right beside the characters. The men—and the side characters as well, John’s other servants, Michael’s family and the transvestite bathhouse owner that rescued him as a young boy—are real people, with faults and foibles; sometimes they’re admirable, and sometimes they’re irritating. John and Michael, despite being thrown together first through the machinations of the little granddaughter of John’s servants, and later, through Michael’s role as John’s physical therapist, honestly can’t stand each other at the beginning, and even through the end of the book sometimes have difficulty understanding or trusting each other. It only makes their relationship more realistic. There are moments when you’re so in sync with the emotions of the characters that you wish you could reach through time and space and comfort them. Or, sometimes, slap them.
And not just the main characters, either. I wanted to yell at Thomas Abbott, John’s servant, for mule-headedness; hug Sarah, the granddaughter, who has had so much tragedy in her young life, and stab Uncle Padraig repeatedly. Millie, the bathhouse owner, has her own story that I’d love to sit and hear, though I know it would make me cry. And as far as Margaret, Michael’s beloved sister, is concerned…!
Chevalier also has a deft hand with the historical elements here; never too heavy-handed, s/he sketches the time and setting in such a way that the behavior and reactions of the characters flesh out both. I picked up very little anachronism—I don’t know enough about the use of massage and physical therapy in the medicine of the day to know if that was accurately presented, so that didn’t bounce me out of the suspension of my disbelief. About the only quibble I have with the book is in the persona of the kindly Doctor Parrish, who plays a bit of a deus ex machina in several spots. However, I didn’t find it overpowering or unbelievable, just a little convenient.
I love stories set in the early twentieth century—it’s a time of such radical change and turmoil, the elements of a gentler, more refined age (at least in perception) juxtaposed against a backdrop of invention and revolution. Bonds of Earth does a lovely job of that juxtaposition—the quiet gardens and wholesome village life throws the horrors both John and Michael suffered in the nightmare of the European war into high relief, making them just that much more horrible. We suffer with them as they find their way through their nightmares, their traumas, their memories, into the small quiet space where they can find each other.
Bonds of Earth is a wonderful, slice of life historical that I can recommend unreservedly.