A review of Peg Boy by R. G. Berube, USA, 2013
Sensational fun and horror ****
Following personal disaster, sympathetic and beautiful 12-year-old Santiago Cali and his father leave their home in Peru to join the Californian Gold Rush of 1848. Further tragedy leaves Santiago left to his own resources for survival. Already richly experienced and enthusiastic about sex, and finding a lot of men attracted to him, he opts to support himself in San Francisco through prostitution but falls into the hands of an unscrupulous and loathsome pimp.
Peg Boy is quite erotic without being erotica, by which I mean there are many graphic sex scenes, but they take place easily in the context of the story and do not dominate or disrupt it. Some will delight those who can appreciate such things, whilst the scenes of rape and other violence are unsurprisingly nauseating and frightening.
The sex is sometimes over the top. For example, explanation of the book's title emerges titillatingly as an elaboration of the unsubstantiated claim made in the sensationalist Boys for Sale by Drew and Drake (1969) that boys in San Francisco brothels sat inserted on chairs with pegs of different sizes protruding both ways to advertise their potential fit with customers. I understand Peg Houses are well-attested and were so-called from pegs being used to train their boys, but pegs were surely superfluous for all but the newest recruits.
I have more serious reservations about some of the historical realism. This matters with a book whose draw is surely to take one convincingly into a lost time. Describing 1848, best known as the year of revolutions, as "relatively peaceful" for the world in the opening sentences of the book is an unfortunate beginning for establishing historical credibility.
Whilst I find it credible that in the circumstances of the Gold Rush the numbers of men wanting sex with boys was far higher than has ever been normal in the United States, it is deeply unrealistic that absolutely no one in the story feels the disgust and outrage over sodomy that was surely typical of Americans then. Only two minor characters are made to feel mild disapproval. One of these is the suspecting owner of a hotel to which Santiago is unworriedly taken with another boy for a threesome. They would have to have been idiots to take such a risk, but that is far from how they are depicted.
I suspect it is also a modernist anachronism to depict a Peruvian boy of that age and period making so much of homosexuality as his fixed identity and feeling it conflicted with his attraction to a girl.
Recommended despite all this (and there being more typos than in any other book I've come across). The story is well-paced, exciting and moving, and the depiction of San Francisco then is fascinating.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 29 July 2015.