My all-time favorite romance novel is a Civil War era bodice ripper called Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. Because I desperately needed a palate cleanser after subjecting myself to the awful Fifty Shades of Grey I picked up my tattered copy and had a reread.
Ashes in the Wind, much to my pleasant surprise, is delightfully literary (keeping in mind that the last two books I’ve read were Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey). I enjoyed my reread not only because of nostalgia, but because Ashes is actually a pretty good book.
In the pre-Internet era, I never found out much about the elusive author Kathleen Woodiwiss. She was never in the public eye like Danielle Steele or Jackie Collins, although Wikipedia informs me that she’s considered a much more important writer in the genre. Some have even said that Kathleen Woodiwiss singlehandedly created the modern historical romance novel – that before she came along romance novels targeted at women were very chaste, even prudish. Descriptions of sexual situations were reserved for books targeted at men and were decidedly not romanticized. Kathleen Woodiwiss came along at just the right point in time – her novels were borne of the sexual revolution and as women felt more free to embrace their own sensual sides, the popularity of romance novels skyrocketed.
Regardless of whether all that is fully true, the fact is the chick could write. Ashes is 664 pages of character development, historical detail, and descriptions that are frankly amazing. Ashes in the Wind may not be a well known or critically acclaimed novel, but it is a master class in writing description.
Reading Ashes in the Wind is like taking a luxurious bubble bath in adjectives.
Twilight: It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect cloudless blue.
Fifty Shades of Grey: It’s a huge twenty story office building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with GREY HOUSE written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors.
Ashes in the Wind: A brownish haze hung over the city and the humid air pressed the sweltering heat down upon the detachment of blue-clad soldiers waiting on the dock for the arrival of the sidewheeler. Its once-bright trim of red and green now faded and chipped, the steamboat resembled some lumbering beast grown gray with age as it threshed toward them with towering black horns spouting smoke and flame. It wallowed ever closer until it cautiously nudged against the low quay where the Mississippi touched the port city. Great hawsers snaked out like giant feelers, and pulleys and blocks creaked above the shouts of laborers as the vessel shouldered closer against the jetty.
664 pages of that.
The characterizations are equally thorough. The spunky, courageous, hardworking Confederate Alaina MacGaren and the gruff-yet-caring, honorable Yankee Dr. Cole Latimer come to life on the pages – well, at least more than Edward and Bella do. Alaina and Cole are three-dimensional; flawed, yet lovable. Their actions and motivations are understandable, relatable. Even when they do things that are a little bit horrifying (Cole, I’m looking at you here) I like them. Unlike Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, there was never a moment where I wondered “What do these people even see in each other? What’s the appeal here?” It makes for a superior romance experience when the characters involved, are, in fact, at least somewhat appealing.
If it wasn’t for the plot, which is largely dumb and involves a lot of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, accidental marriages, villainous machinations, various throbbing and inflamed body parts, and a disturbing undercurrent of rapeyness that all the romance novels of the era seem to contain, Ashes in the Wind could be an actual, even respectable book.
But set all that aside. None of that was the interesting part of Ashes for me here in 2019. The fundamental question of Ashes in the Wind feels tailor-made for the times in which we live.
Can two people set aside their differences – up to and including being on opposite sides of a civil war – and under the twin influences of their hormones and their hearts, live happily ever after?
This is, of course, a recurring theme in romantic literature. People who are from two totally different worlds falling head over heels in love. Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Cathy, Paula Abdul and this weird anthropormorphic catlike creature.
It may not be 1863, but we live in a strange and divided nation, a nation in which once-highly-respected magazines like Time and erstwhile American institution Harper’s Bazaar have no compunction about running thinkpieces encouraging people to break up otherwise loving relationships over politics. Yet in the pages of Ashes in the Wind, Cole and Alaina are able set their differences aside – differences so great that they led to an Actual Civil War – and find love.
Is that possible here in 2019? Or is it a pipe dream? Is it a romantic fantasy just like Ashes in the Wind is a romantic fantasy?
On the one hand, I, friend to both conservatives and liberals alike, would like to believe that love conquers all and that there is, in the words of Tod Kelly, “infinitely more that binds us together than separates us.” I would really like to believe that there are fundamental, essential, universal things that two human beings can share betwixt them that supercede politics and superficial mostly-aesthetic cultural differences.
But I’m not sure I do any more. I’m just not sure I believe that principle, no matter how much I’d like to. With apologies to Tod, I am starting to think that more separates us than binds us together.
Maybe it once was possible for people of wildly disparate backgrounds to set their differences aside and live happily ever after. But the gulf has grown too wide, I fear. Even without diving into the briar patch that is politics, those superficial aesthetic cultural differences are legion – virtually infinite, it feels like sometimes. Every day I wake up and read about how some formerly benign and apolitical thing that I had thought everyone universally liked, is actually problematic and imbued with all this meaning that I never even knew was there. There is no safe quarter. Everything matters. It may not be an Actual Civil War (yet) but this cold civil war we’re playing at has permeated every aspect of life.
That wasn’t the case in 1863. Alaina and Cole may have disagreed on some pretty major issues, like secession and states’ rights, but in the end they were able to set aside the fact that he was a bluebellied Yankee snake and she was a duplicitous Rebel at least in part because they had tons of other things in common to connect them. They probably ate mostly the same foods, wore mostly the same types of clothing, believed in the same God, read the same books, used the same definition of the words “man” and “woman” and very likely had similar expectations about their gender roles within a marriage.
Cole and Alaina were able to make a relationship work because (in addition to being fictional characters – which always helps) despite having serious political differences, they had few cultural differences. Most people in 1863 – rich, poor, city, country, Union, Confederate, Gray, Blue – lived pretty similar lives. The hardness of the environment in which they lived dictated it. No one was debating the ethics of eating sea bass over dinner because there was naught but salt pork on the menu and everyone was too busy hoping not to die of yellow fever that week.
People on different sides of the political aisle nowadays come from entirely different cultures with entirely different worldviews and as such they differ wildly on just about everything – the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the God the worship or lack thereof, the entertainment they prefer, how to bring up children, gender issues, sexuality. We even disagree about what it means to be human. There’s little two people can just take for granted in a modern romantic relationship, no issue upon which they could be fairly sure they were simpatico. Nothing is a given. There’s no foundation of universal agreement to build upon. We may as well be speaking different languages and living on different planets. Not Mars and Venus, either; we’re talking Mercury and Pluto here. Every seemingly meaningless decision that a person makes over the course of the day, week, month, year would be open for debate. Every choice, every preference, every word that spills from one’s lips would be parsed, analyzed, and dissected.
Where there’s room for debate, there will be disagreement, and disagreement quickly devolves into passing judgement.
If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who is a nitpicker, a fault-finder, a grudge holder, you would likely agree that it is not so much fun. It’s very difficult to live in another person’s crosshairs 24-7, especially when that person is the person who’s supposed to love you, and stuff. It often happens that when a relationship becomes strained (and what relationship doesn’t experience strain at times?) that a judgmental person sets up a hypercritical narrative about their partner and watches everything the other party does in search of support for that narrative. Nothing is off limits, everything is fair game, every moment of every day is up for scrutiny. Any moment of inattention or irritation, every shortcoming, each innocent mistake is put into the Permanent File as evidence of laziness, weakness, lack of commitment, perfidy. Every choice you make and every action you take, even the most microscopic, is like handling a series of live grenades; you never know which one of them is going to go off in your face. It’s not an easy way to live and it’s not conducive to happily ever after.
I imagine that’s what it would be like to be in love with someone from the opposite side of the political aisle in 2019. We have already set up our narratives and most of us fully buy into them. We don’t understand each other and a pretty large number of people don’t WANT to understand each other. We prefer to find evidence to support our narratives instead. We see only good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, monsters and saints, the entirely innocent and the thoroughly despised. I can imagine that in this cross-political relationship we’re envisioning, those narratives about heroes and villains would continue running unabated beneath the surface, too deeply ingrained to easily set aside. Like one of those annoying Stephen-Hawking-themed popup ads that you discover lurking underneath your Internet browser, the narratives hide in our subconscious and whisper their poisonous messages nonstop. “Not like you,” they say. “You deserve better.” There might be wine and roses and chocolates and sweet talk and hot sex at first but those things are temporary, fleeting.
Cole Latimer, Yankee Snake, was able to fall in love with Alaina MacGaren, Duplicitous Rebel, because he didn’t really think she was his enemy way down deep inside. And Alaina, despite definitely not being a fan of Yankees at the start of the story, learned over the course of the book that Yankees were people just like she was and that they were just as much victims of circumstance as her beloved Confederates…some of whom weren’t exactly angels themselves (and kudos on that well-drawn character transformation, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, I doff my hat to you.) In the end, it wasn’t only their underlying cultural similarities that brought Cole and Alaina together despite their political differences. It was the fact that neither of them – Cole, from the beginning, and Alaina, over the course of time, saw each other as an irredeemably evil monster, but as a flawed human being shaped by circumstances beyond their control. They looked beyond what they were, to who they were, and that made the difference.
Mutual understanding and forgiveness. That’s fertile ground. That’s the soil in which the seeds of love can grow,even blossom.
As for the 2019 versions of Alaina and Cole, I don’t know. I still want to believe that love can conquer all obstacles not only in the pages of a historical romance novel, but in the real world. But the path forward for star-crossed lovers in this troubled time is a rocky one, I’m afraid.
The Earth’s been salted. We’re bitter and furious. We modern and non-fictional folk seem to be in quite a rush to huddle up, split off, choose sides, segregate, isolate, build walls and damn each other forever. We see ourselves as breeds apart and a good many of us take delight in the difference. Any and every way we can further separate our side from “those people”, we embrace it. The things we like, the things we hate, the things we desire from life, the things we want and need from each other. We are not like THEM and we’ll prove it any way we possibly can, even if it means turning away from true love.