One of the most fascinating aspects of history for me is how easily it can be changed. A chance meeting, a simple mistake, a case of being in the wrong place at the right time –our entire civilization has been seemingly founded on a series of random occurances. Had there been some other randomness at work, our whole way of life might be different. That’s part of the concept behind Connie Wilkins’ thought-provoking anthology, Time Well Bent.
Wilkins has gathered fourteen stories that explore not only alternative histories but the queer men and women involved in changing those histories. They span centuries, cultures and continents and range from hard history to gentle mythology, and each one of them is genuinely interesting not only for the histories they change but for the characters they introduce.
Of course, the history most interesting is that which is most personal to you. Among my favorites are the two colonial American stories, “Roanoke” by Sandra Barret and “A Marriage of Choice” by Dale Chase. Barret takes the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colony and injects a heroine, Rose Payne, who becomes a two-spirit huntress gathering game for the fledgling colony with the help of her Native American mentor, the beautiful Maigan. How their affair ends also explains the extermination of the colony. Fascinating stuff.
But no less fascinating is Chase’s “A Marriage of Choice,” which queers up Thomas Jefferson, giving him a male lover. This predisposes Jefferson to talk fellow draftsman James Madison into persuading Congress to adopt a Bill of Rights whose first amendment provides for a “marriage of choice,” thereby sealing same-sex marriage into the Constitution – particularly timely in light of the recent Maine and New York defeats we’ve suffered. Chase breathes such life into these textbook figures as to leave me in awe of her talent.
But colonial America isn’t the only history Time Well Bent revisits. Barry Lowe’s scribe-monk Brother Francis re-writes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in “Sod ‘Em,” Simon Sheppard puts an entirely different homo-spin on Kubla Kahn’s pleasure dome in “Barbaric Splendor,” and Lisabet Sarai provides a different explanation for Gilbert and Sullivan’s parting of the ways in “Opening Night.”
One of the most moving stories, however, is Emily Salter’s “A Happier Year,” which envisions what might have happened to two young, impressionable men had E.M. Forster published maybe the best queer novel ever, Maurice, when it was written in 1914 instead of 1971. Sometimes history reverberates loudest in the heart.
But these are only my favorites. If you love Shakespeare or are fascinated by the Hesperus, dig Aztec myth or Lawrence of Arabia, or simply like seeing where and how queer people will pop up to change the world in the most marvelous ways, you will find Time Well Bent to be time well spent indeed.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler