Queer history is essential. All history is essential, of course, but queerness in history has been systematically closeted away from view, and so for history to be queer requires excavation. Digging down through the layers of the past to see what has been hidden is the only way to know how things really were; queering history reveals the truth of it.
That’s why my favorite character in PASSING STRANGE is Jack, the piano player at Mona’s nightclub. Jack is an old-school butch dike who is arrested early in the story by a bigoted cop who sexually assaults her on the street during his search of her clothing. He’s searching to determine whether or not she’s wearing the legally-mandated three pieces of women’s clothing that would save her from an indecency charge as a cross-dresser. She isn’t; she goes to prison for ninety days. This sets up a major plot point later in the story, but for me the impact was more about Jack herself, her defiance in the face of a law she knew very well she was breaking, her anger, her self-destructive despair. Jack, fictional as she is, represents real people who really lived this reality. My ancestors are the dikes who wore men’s clothing during the time of the three-pieces law. I love her.
This whole book was a character-driven read, for me. A couple years ago I reviewed Klages' short story collection, WICKED WONDERS, for Cascadia Subduction Zone Literary Quarterly, and was pleased to find several characters from various short stories appear together in this novella. Polly, the young British scientist working as a stage magician, is one of my favorites, and although I wish she got a little more page time in PASSING STRANGE I appreciate her contribution to the plot. Franny’s map-folding magic is one of my favorite speculative elements that (re)appears in Klages’ work, and I’m delighted to see it again.
Ellen Klages isn’t necessarily the first author who comes to mind when I think of my favorites--sometimes I forget she exists--but the overwhelming feeling this novella left me with was that I want to write exactly like this. Lovely, vivid prose; striking, unique characters; realistic conversations that move the action; detailed grounding in real history alongside charming and ethereal magic; troubling dilemmas that are both personal and cosmic; clever, unusual solutions to those problems. I love everything about this.
n.b. I got this ebook for free from Tor, I think as part of their eBook of the Month club? Except that can't be right, because it's bundled with three other Tor novellas by queer authors and I think it might have been a Pride promotional thing. In any case, here's another plug for the Tor eBook of the Month club, sign up for it to get cool stuff for free!