Earth As It Is
by Jan Maher
Indiana University Press

"He knew so little about himself and his hungers, even less about others who shared his compulsion."

The end of World War II brings a new resident to the small farming community of Heaven, Indiana. Quiet but kindly Charlene Bader opens a beauty parlor to the female population's delight. Asked about her past, Charlene says only that both her parents died in the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic and that her younger sister died of rare early-onset Parkinson's Disease while still in her twenties. Her shop and cottage constitute Charlene's whole world. She's also contentedly single. She's equally content to listen without comment as her gossipy customers regale her with Heaven's latest scuttlebutt or confide their troubles to her. Charlene's secret infatuation with one of her regulars would curl hair tighter than any perm if word got out. And that's only half of what she's hiding.

In 1933, newly married Anne Bader never expected that within months of her dream wedding, she'd throw her husband, Charlie, out for dressing in her own intimate apparel. She leaves to serve as a missionary in Africa, an unmistakable assertion of her values and who she is. But Charlie lacks such self-assurance. Since his conservative, loveless Texas childhood, he's experienced periodic shame-inducing urges to dress in women's clothing. Seeking to reinvent himself, he moves to the liberal anonymity of Chicago, where he encounters a group of men who share his penchant for cross-dressing. When war intervenes, it horrifies Charlie with its revelations of the evil men can inflict on each other. Afterward, these memories make him crave the bucolic serenity of a place like Heaven. But even his new paradise guards its secrets.

Maher has written in many forms for numerous genres. She holds a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies with emphases in theatre, education, and neuroscience. This last area of expertise allows her to credibly describe Hannah Bader's struggle against the ravages of Parkinson's Disease.

The revelation of Charlie's sustained lie of nearly twenty years engenders deep hurt and distrust among those who frequented the beauty shop and considered Charlene a friend. Charlie's dishonesty, more than his cross-dressing, is censured. He does not experience secret sexual proclivities toward other men and repeatedly says so, even to those few who know he is male. Nor does he fake his compassion for those close to him. Both as he was born and when dressed as Charlene, he is unflaggingly gentle with Hannah, with his fiancée Minnie Kelso's elderly mother as her dementia worsens, and with regular customer Helen Breck's cognitively disabled daughter Melinda.

So beloved is their hairdresser as a woman that even when they know the truth, her customers insist that she be dressed as a woman for her open-casket funeral. This is an overt acknowledgment of Charlie's courage to be himself in highly conformist homophobic postwar society and a more tacit acknowledgment of the ladies' collective unspoken wish that they could do likewise. But Charlie's freedom is not total. Given their history in Heaven, he and Minnie could never live there as man and wife. Neither is willing to move, so they must content themselves with a secret romance.

That is nothing new. While Minnie thinks Charlie is Charlene, she is in love with her and believes her love to be a case of lesbianism, which must be kept secret in conservative Heaven. Writings on same-sex attraction of the time posited the view that it was a psychological aberration, and Minnie's fear that she is losing her mind reflects this. Besides, Minnie's first fiancé jilts her, and she never marries, so she is used to singleness.

Though publicly frowned upon, cross-dressing, homosexuality, and even sex-change operations were acknowledged facts in American society between the 1930s and the 1960s. This book discusses all of them. This novel may well resonate with friends and loved ones of LGBTQ+ community members and anyone who struggles to express their gender identity authentically.

A 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

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