In 1919, just as WWI is ending, there are 25,000 Navy men in Newport, Rhode Island. For a town that normally has only 5,000 service men, this is a huge and troublesome number. The men drink, gamble, and carouse. There are prostitutes to cater to all these young men. The Navy is focused on rooting out all this vice, especially those men who are interested in the almost literally unspeakable act of sodomy. They are determined to crack down on "fairies" and eject from their ranks any homosexual they can find. In order to do that, they enlist the help of a large group of men ordered to entrap the unsuspecting and file a report about their forbidden sexual abomination. This effort eventually became known as the Newport Navy Vice Scandal of 1919. As bad as it would have been to keep it confined within the Navy itself, three of the men make allegations that result in the arrest of a cherished civilian, the Reverend Kent.
William Bartlett is a junior lawyer from a respected family. He is a morally upstanding man whose wife Sarah is very active in social causes. Through her, he first meets the Reverend Kent, a deeply kind and genuinely good man who is thoughtful, measured, humble, and driven to care for and help those around him. When William hears that Reverend Kent has been accused of sexual impropriety, of the horror of homosexuality, he is appalled that anyone could ever believe this of such a morally upright man and he urges the Reverend to fight the charges. But if William is certain that Kent is innocent, he still weighs his unease over the scandalous nature of the charges, struggling between his desire to live up to his father's memory and do right and to protect his family and career from the dishonor of being associated with such a court case.
The novel is told in third person with emphasis on William, Kent, and several of the men participating in this witch hunt, including Charlie McKinney, a charismatic, opportunistic young man who lived on the streets and survived on his wits, and naive seventeen year old Barker, who idolizes Charlie. The revolving narration allows the readers to know a little more about each man and the things that drive him. The bulk of the narration focuses on William and his grappling with the understanding that justice doesn't always serve right and that there's more to good and evil than guilt or innocence, especially in the case of socially constructed morality. In general the characters are a bit uneven in their own portrayal, hewing to type rather than being balanced out by imperfections: the conscientious lawyer fighting for right, the saintly reverend ministering to the dying and the lonely, the former street urchin who finds his own moral fiber, the angry caricature of a Navy man determined to punish and threaten and intimidate anyone he can. But the story is a gripping one, and the tension rises at a steady pace with the outcome of the trial in doubt right to the very end. That this is based on a true event in our history adds another layer of fascination to the tale and gives us insight into the ways in which we have progressed as a society as well as the ways in which we are clearly the descendants of these men, so constrained by their preconceived ideas that they cannot admit to a gentler, less unbending truth.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.