When last year I interviewed the author Sarah A Chrisman, I walked away with only one word to describe her: warm. Talking to her was like drinking a delicious cup of hot cocoa: sweet, comforting, and immensely satisfying. I wasn’t surprised. The Tales of Chetzemoka — Chrisman’s series of historical novels set in the Pacific Northwest during the late 19th century — got me through the pandemic with their tenderness and companionship.
Cosy and familiar like a warm handmade jumper, the friends of the Chetzemoka Wheelmen — the fictional bicycling club at the heart of the series — became my friends. So, when Chrisman revealed to me that the latest instalment would be published by Christmas, I was excited. Having finally finished Spark’s Press, it does not disappoint.
Centring on the characters of Felix Holloway (an intrepid young reporter and a personal favourite of mine) and Sophie Fuller (a schoolgirl coming-of-age in a changing world), Spark’s Press is as charming and delightful as its predecessors. Growing weary of the yellow journalism popular in his era, Felix considers setting up his own magazine following encouragement from his chum, Ken. Through adventures reporting on the Great Seattle Fire and Washington statehood Felix and Sophie both begin to realise their dreams may be more attainable than they imagined.
It didn’t surprise me that Chrisman wanted to author a book about frustrations with yellow journalism. She is no stranger to having her words manipulated by the press or to being reduced to a caricature — topics we discussed when I interviewed her. In those regards, Spark’s Press stands as a rebuke to a media culture so consumed with clickbait that it often distorts reality. It also serves as a call-to-arms for every writer fed up with such an industry not to be afraid to strike out on their own. “If you want the lion’s share,” Felix quotes another writer, “be the lion.” Chrisman — who self-publishes her fiction — certainly took that mantra to heart, and it’s clear she wants her readers to as well.
What might not be so clear to readers, however, is the romance at the heart of Spark’s Press. One of the things that most endeared The Tales of Chetzemoka to me was the gay couple hiding in plain sight. Felix and his “chum,” Ken, were clearly in love as I read through the series — a fact confirmed to me by Chrisman when I interviewed her. Because she writes to the standards of the late 19th century, an era when an overt romance between two men would not have passed the censors, this fact is buried in the subtext. A casual reader may miss the subtle clues she weaves throughout the series.
To the discerning eye, however, Ken and Felix are every bit the romantic heroes. In Delivery Delayed — the fourth book in the series — there are several clues to the nature of their relationship, including a comic scene when they are almost caught in a compromising position and another, sweet scene where Felix subtly confesses his love to Ken, which Isaac (one of the protagonists of that particular novel) thinks is a joke. Chrisman, however, ingeniously manages to convey that this is, in fact, an earnest declaration.
That same subtext is present throughout Spark’s Press. Whether in the affectionate taps Ken gives Felix — rapping out cycling bugle calls with his fingers — which serve as a stand-in for more romantic declarations or even “I love you,” to the tenderness present in one scene where they bathe using an old washbasin, Chrisman makes clear these two men are more than just friends. As she told me last year, even the term “chums” which Ken, Felix, and the other characters use to refer to the pair is meant to convey a romantic relationship (“chum” having homoerotic connotations in 19th century literature).
As a gay man who enjoys gay romance and historical fiction, Ken and Felix’s presence in The Tales of Chetzemoka is a large part of what kept me enraptured. So, the fact that Spark’s Press features them so prominently is enough to rank it as my favourite in the series. Chrisman is fantastic at character development and getting to know Felix on a deeper level after six books where he was more peripheral was immensely satisfying.
However, the subtlety of writing to 19th century standards which worked in previous books — where Ken and Felix were relegated to supporting roles — at times becomes frustrating in the series’ latest instalment. In a book that centres so much on two gay characters, both in terms of Felix as a protagonist and in terms of Ken and Felix as a couple, it would have been nice to see more of them as, well, a couple. In Delivery Delayed, for example, we were treated to the tortured self-doubt of Lizzie as she pined for Isaac, and in Love Will Find a Wheel we were able to cheer on Addie during her courtship with Jacob.
You don’t get that same satisfaction in Spark’s Press. Instead, Felix’s true feelings for Ken are obfuscated under 140 years’ worth of censorship. The crucial difference between writers in 1889 — when Spark’s Press concludes — and 2021 is that Victorian writers had no choice but to write to the censors. Chrisman did not have to. And though it does feel unfair to expect her to change her writing style simply to accommodate modern readers (or more accurately, this reader) — especially when so much of her success is that she writes as authentically as she can — Spark’s Press nonetheless illustrates the limits of this exercise in historical accuracy.
It also demonstrates something else, though, which I think makes the sacrifice of a more explicit romance in favour of subtext useful. By writing this way, Chrisman bolsters homoerotic interpretations of many classics where the romance or sexual desire for the same-sex may be buried deep within the subtext. Suddenly, for example, there is much less doubt about the true nature of Sebastian and Charles’ relationship in Brideshead Revisited, or that of Basil and Dorian in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Chrisman proves that when an author wants to make clear same-sex desire or attraction, she can make it clear even if she can’t make it blatant. That is a lesson to all students of literature — all readers, really — that there is more to the books we cherish than we often realise, and that our instincts are usually righter than we’ll allow.
Of course, as I previously pointed out, Victorian writers had to write with subtext. I mean, they sentenced Oscar Wilde to hard labour for being gay, so he was hardly going to put a love scene in Dorian Gray. Chrisman chooses to write to Victorian censors, but she doesn’t have to. That may be the genius or the folly of Spark’s Press, depending on how you look at it.
I choose to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As a gay man it is frustrating, but as someone who loves history and challenging myself as a writer, I find it impressive what she managed to do given the restraints she places on herself. After all, I still cheered for the chums, celebrating their successes and feeling the burn of jealousy right along with Felix — and that is what matters.
In most other regards, Spark’s Press follows the formula of Chrisman’s previous novels. There is “cribbing” (a word Chrisman enjoys using) from historical sources, which she cites in the appendices and which lend a historical authenticity to the books. The scenes during the Great Seattle Fire are particularly enjoyable, and Felix’s race after the wagon was fast-paced and suspenseful. I would have liked to have seen more social functions with the cycling club, feeling that the series is at its best when this group of friends is socialising together. Some of my favourite scenes from the series include the seances in A Rapping at the Door and the Valentine’s Day dance in Delivery Delayed, both of which involved bringing many of the characters together under one roof. We don’t get much of that in Spark’s Press, though with both Lizzie and Kitty now having children of their own, perhaps it is to be expected that as the group grows older it grows apart.
All things considered, Spark’s Press is as entertaining a read as any book in The Tales of Chetzemoka. I enjoyed once more spending time with the Wheelmen (and women), riding along on yet another adventure through Washington Territory. Er, I mean Washington State.
I only hope more future novels will focus on Ken and Felix, further developing the relationship between the two chums. They are engaging characters, and Chrisman writes them with such compassion and humour that you can’t help but love them. Whether that happens or not, I will always look forward to my visits to Chetzemoka, where I know the chums will be waiting with a goofy smile and a whole lot of love.
Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.