Book Reviews

The Orphan from Shepherds Keep by Lindsay Law

Genre Gay / Bisexual / Historical / Recent (1980s) / Romance
Reviewed by Bob-O-Link on 20-June-2024

Book Blurb

Over a period of thirty years, three gay men struggle to define themselves and make their mark on a turbulent and unwelcoming world that is so filled with anger that love has become a luxury.

The townsfolk describe him as “prettier than a boy should be.” ELI APPLE is embarrassed by such remarks but soon learns to celebrate all the pleasures his beauty invites. He possesses the voice of an angel and the sound of his tender falsetto echoes throughout the green forests that surround his New England home. A rough, older boy, FERRIS COOPER, dazzled by the youngster’s loveliness and captivated by the hymns he sings, secretly follows him on his daily walks. And into both their lives arrives BENJAMIN BERGER, savior to one and beloved by the other. The adventures of these three men become entwined in a surprising tapestry of love and betrayal over the course of thirty years.

Straddling the worlds of music, religion, and art, and set in an era that begins with Ronald Reagan describing America as a “shining city on a hill” and ends with Donald Trump’s legacy of “American carnage,” these characters come of age while America is coming apart. They celebrate as gay marriage is legalized and suffer as gun violence explodes across the country. And when a deadly virus threatens a nation close their borders, they must struggle to survive in an America they no longer recognize.


Book Review

This is a long, involved story – or what the dictionary might term a saga, which tends to present as historic, usually long, and expectedly involved. That style goes back to very early storytelling, broadly shared from the Greeks to the Norse. And it survives, as currently witness ‘The Orphan from Shepherds Keep’, involving several apparently divergent stories which, no surprise, become interconnected as time passes. Lots of time – as though slow-cooked in a literary crock pot over a span of years. Dickens surely knew how to do it well and, as school kids, many were either mesmerized with his narrative flow or suffered tedium as the author slowly compartmentalized the story in serialized installments.


Before beginning this review – perhaps too lengthy for some, I must to assure you that the book is absolutely marvelous: if the following seems too wordy, please skip it and go directly to the source. You won’t be sorry.


And so we have author Lindsay Law offering up Elijah (Eli) Apple, Benjamin Berger, and Ferris Cooper, among many other characters, as alone or together they pass before us for almost forty years. Yes! Absent the investment of such a length of time, their story would be merely a passing tale, perhaps in occasional installments on evening TV.


We meet Benjamin Berger, a rural young lad, in a setting of bad winter weather, quite suitable to a Gothic tale. The narrowness of his empty existence in northern Vermont is reinforced, being the son of rather vile parents – one who brews whiskey and the other who sells unregistered guns. Yet, quickly, details of his life and surprising events cast the seeds of the tale onto fertile soil. Ben gains our interest with surprising actions that start the saga; saving a newborn baby on a journey. The perils of escape are finely limned. This is an effort, not only of escape but of deliverance – and thus they are both newborn!


The baby is carefully left at a monastery, described as rural, bucolic, of an earlier era. The abbot is Jeshua and it is Christmas Eve. Thus, Jeshua’s retelling of Christ’s birth and the manger becomes an intense recitation of the possibility for joy and love. With acknowledging the words that “a child shall lead them”, the monks ponder whether the foundling will be a temptation or a blessing. Surrounded by eight religious monks, Elijah, as the baby is called (and, eventually, just Eli) is more attuned to practical rather than spiritual lessons. And, sadly, Elijah’s upbringing is distant, without he being much held, or touched, or kissed.


Next we meet a peculiar young boy, Ferris Cooper – son of the monastery’s landowners. He is forever troubled and, perhaps, interesting. He is never popular with his classmates. Difficult to ignore, “sheathed as he is on a layer of seductive menace” (what a way to describe a child!), he grows from mischievous to evil. Eventually he meets Ben, who shortly departs for college, to study criminal justice.


Eli studies music with one of the monks. His upbringing is somewhat fractured as, with nine ‘parents’ he can always find one to agree with him. Eli has a soft, whispery voice – a contra tenor's, strongly colored with the nature of a female singer.


Thus far, author Law has filled the narrative with clues, predicting things to come: Eli’s narrow interests, Ferris’s anti-social behavior, Ben’s involvement with racial bias in street crime. And Ben’s gay bent is self-discovered and well hidden.


Our dramatis personae are assembled.


Assuming we have entered the next act, we follow Eli’s singing career, and Ferris stalking him. They finally meet, becoming acquainted, but with care: Eli is mindful that Ferris is the son of the monk’s landlords. Nonetheless, they begin as friends and their self-defense lessons evolve into erotic wrestling and sexual intercourse – a means for Eli to experience ecstasy. Trouble follows, with the author going beyond mere factual exposition but rather employing an inner vision of Ferris’s confusion with life, with his displacement. He ultimately persuades Eli to accept the blame for a major wrongdoing of Ferris, out of “love” and devotion. Eli’s sacrifice also benefits the monastery financially. Here author Law makes a tricky point: Eli is encouraged by the monks to lie to protect Ferris, which is an example of the “just” monks acting to pervert morality to their own warped sense of self-righteousness. Alas! And, just as Eli is off to a monastery in Spain, Ben tells Eli how he was present when Eli was born, and the story of their flight from Ben’s family – which is quite Dickensian.


Now the story has established three main characters, presented the roots of who they will be as they proceed through their lives to come, and properly hook the reader. Eli’s childhood is over!


Where to next? Eli in Spain, a seductive model for a painter. Eli, a totally non-religious member of the monastery (having been deemed unsuitable for the priesthood), he is the head gardener and orchardist, also providing physical therapy, he is attractive to both men and women, all for whom he occasionally favors with sex. Ferris would have called him a smooth operator. Though Eli likes sex, the physicality seems not so important. Nonetheless, this time is the acme of Eli’s sexual existence, which seems to end with the recognition that random sexual pleasure provides no lasting joy. Question; Is this not the finding of a religious moral truth? As he matures, Eli becomes celibate and solitary.


Meanwhile Ferris has sunk into drug use, experiencing several overdoses. Ultimately, Ben is inexplicably drawn to Ferris and attempts to be Ferris’s personal salvation.


Another authorial aside gives us insight into Jeshua, the abbot. Complicated, he has been fatherly to Eli but he, effectively, sold him out for the economic benefit of the brotherhood. He remains committed to financial solvency for the monastery, which challenges his moral footing, as he even considers how to capitalize on Ferris for that same end.


Another literary intermezzo examines the recovering Ferris and his relationship with Ben. It is a small gemstone in a fine piece of jewelry!


Enough! While I enjoy rhapsodizing, before the review overwhelms the very subject under observation, time for the reader to become engaged in ‘The Orphan from Shepherds Keep.’ Want to know what happens with our main characters? How will Covid affect their lives? How will the passage of time change any trajectory on which they’ve embarked? Can a life of deprivation (random Eli’s) be fulfilling? Hopefully your interest has been sufficiently whetted!


Here are some random End Notes, my thoughts to encourage you.


1. Eli: “Believe me, sharing my childhood with eight priests taught me to pray, but I never once heard His voice. He’s not interested in me. Never has been.


2. The time line extends sufficiently to offer some thoughts on today’s gay environment. Issue – True or False: “Taking on the traditions of the straight world would be our demise.”


3. Which is more threatening – the past or the future?


4. Don’t let the book’s length wear you out. It didn’t diminish author Law’s style efforts. “Aleksi keeps Eli entertained with exotic tales of betrayals and betrothals from Kiev to Bialystok.”


5. Another aside is a fine discussion of our place in God’s world and what is expected of us. Aleksi questions “Where is God?’ and proceeds with a wonderful discussion. If you wanted a sundae, be glad for all the toppings which have been included.


6. “Are we in charge of our own lives?” Keep reading, as the answer is perfect.


Sometimes a book so captures us that analyzing the plot may seem merely reproductive of the story. Reading ‘The Orphan from Shepherds Keep’ has been a joy. I’d like to convey that feeling but not with excessive, explicit references (factually or philosophically) so as not to lessen your own experience. Let me try. First, note a strength. Though presented almost as a non-musical opera, its special feature is the constant evolution of its characters, ever changing – sometimes reacting to others or to circumstances, but often undergoing self-generated metamorphoses. Second, how can you not love a book in which the main characters engage your heart and hopes and make you read through tears?





DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book was provided by the author for the purpose of a review.


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 357 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 14-March-2024
Price $7.99 ebook, $17.99 paperback, $27.99 hardback
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