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Transgender author Christopher Hawthorne Moss jokingly calls his new YA novel, the second edition of Beloved Pilgrim (Harmony Ink Press, 2014), a book that has undergone a “sex change”–then quickly follows-up by informing readers that “sex change” (now known as “gender reassignment surgery”) is an obsolete term used only with “tongue firmly in cheek.”
Still, he knows the initial imagery is striking to a core audience of non-trans fans of historical fiction and gay historical romance. Once he has their ears, he patiently goes over a more nuanced understanding of transgender identity. He has an eye for the teachable moment: the way to grab the reader with an image, and then use that attention to deliver a deeper lesson about how limiting gender expectations can be. It’s a worthy skill in a YA novelist.
When Moss starts talking about that updated edition of Beloved Pilgrim—which was first penned and self-published in 2011—he’ll undoubtedly talk about how he originally wrote his protagonist as a lesbian knight to fill a gap he saw in the historical fiction genre. But several years after releasing the novel and beginning his gender transition, the now 60-year-old Moss quickly realized that his original impetus to write a hero he could relate to was in sore need of a revisit. And so Elisabeth was reborn as transgender knight Elias von Winterkirch—a decision that meant a daunting overhaul of his 300-page novel, but which Moss appears to have handled skillfully.
Elias does not read as female, but as a man who is using the resources his circumstances allow to project his male idenitty. It’s a reality sewn into the fabric of his life, but not a circumstance he overly laments or which is in constant danger of being spectacularly revealed and punished. Elias discloses his birth gender to his close friends and lovers, who largely embrace him. Then he carries on with his job in a manner not unlike the other men who surround him. While transgender characters often seems to offer storytellers a great opportunity for shocking twists and a tragedy-to-triumph, it’s commendable that Moss focuses all of these effects onto the plot and not on Elias’ trans-ness. This sends a much needed implicit message to his teenage readership that being trans is simply another possibility among identity’s many intersections, and they shouldn’t expect it to be sensationalized.
Even so, it’s worth noting that Elias manhood emerge from of slightly different lived experience than his peers, and this proves to be an advantage: his history of being treated poorly as a woman makes him particularly sensitive to other-ing and injustice. In this way, his trans identity subtly becomes into one pillar of his heroism, helping to develop his worldview as he develops from a boy into a man. And his keen desire for justice is soon tested as he embarks on a Crusade that devolves into senseless violence and loss.
Moss’ prose is well-paced and cinematic, with a particular ability to evoke the rank smells and sounds of a traveling army in a war-scorched terrain. His sharp ear for dialogue allows a reader to stay in the historical moment, even as characters address topics like queerness and gender transition that are often considered contemporary—they simply find their own language and rarely come off as “out of character.” The story remains appropriate for a mature YA reader, touching briefly but tactfully on important subjects like marital abuse and the objectification of women.
The time period and events appear to be meticulously researched, which results, in part, in a twisting, and sometimes head-scratchingly unexpected narrative with a few long stretches of talking and thinking rather than action. While the knights originally set off on a straightforward Crusade, with Elias seeking his father and honor for his deceased brother, his crew ends up on a zig-zagging journey that offers little glory and much suffering. This dovetails perfectly with Elias’ growing disillusionment towards violence, but also results in a plot that occasionally drags, and leaves off on a slightly unfinished note.
Younger readers may feel frustrated that the “epic battle” they await is forever put-off, but I found a greater pleasure in Elias not being able to achieve heroism in a classic way. Though he does at one point have his chance to slaughter “enemies,” the lasting feeling afterwards is a sadness at the friends he’s lost through war, compounded by a nagging feeling that everyone has an inherent humanity beyond skin color or belief system. This feeling is only enhanced by memories of his fiancé and stepson—introduced in a bit of a rushed romance, and more instrumental than realistic—who are not of his own privileged race and class background and therefore threatened by the possibility of inhumane treatment at any moment.
While historical fiction abounds with stories of female-assigned people going undercover to fight in wars, they rarely consider the possibility that protagonists could truly be transgender men (even if they lack our current language to express this in their time periods). Moss gives young trans readers the benefit of a trans hero they can identify with and who overcomes tragedies unrelated to being rejected by family or being revealed as an “imposter.” And he does the genre a great favor by writing a trans character so authentically from the core of his own experiences—one whose inner questions about his gender do not overwhelm the narrative, and who spends the majority of the book living and growing as a whole self: a future husband and father, a loyal son, a just employer, and a defender of innocent bystanders. Sure, it has the elements of idealism and wish fulfillment this suggests, but enough dashes of darkness to give it a necessary complexity.
By Christopher Hawthorne Moss
Harmony Ink Press
Paperback, 9781627985383, 304 pp.