Robin Talley is one of the premier YA authors of LGBTQ+ novels and has made something of a niche for herself by placing these stories in well-researched historical settings. Her latest is set in late 70’s California, mainly San Francisco, and niftily uses the story of two young women to show this pivotal time in queer history from a female perspective. It particularly resonated with me as I was a similar age as the main characters at that time and also found my identity (albeit a different one) through the punk music they both love.
During the summer of 1977 white high schoolers Tammy and Sharon are assigned to become pen pals by their Christian schools. Tammy is a deeply closeted lesbian living in conservative Orange County with her hardcore and homophobic religious family. Sharon lives in a Catholic area of San Francisco with her rather checked out mother and her gay (but known only to her) brother.
The novel opens with the Anita Bryant-led repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida and closes with the massive 1978 defeat in California of the Briggs initiative (seeking to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools). During this year, the coming out (pun intended) of the gay rights movement and the shifting of public attitudes is shown through Tammy and Sharon and those around them. Maybe because it’s mostly set in San Francisco, the novel does take a somewhat rosy-eyed view of what being gay or lesbian in the 1970’s meant.
At first the young women stick to the anodyne questions of their pen-pal program, but later, as they come to feel close, they share more intimate confidences. Sharon starts going to punk concerts and meets cool feminists as well as going to the Castro with her brother to support gay rights. Tammy starts a relationship with another girl at school and inspired by Patti Smith, starts recognizing her anger at the conformity the world imposes.
As well as their letters to each other, both young women write diaries. Tammy writes hers as a letter to Harvey Milk, Sharon’s is a more traditional one. These narrative devices feel a little contrived, particularly when they are writing to each other despite living in the same house, and I didn’t find the voices particularly well-differentiated.
These minor quibbles aside, I found myself thoroughly engrossed by Tammy and Sharon’s different journeys to self-discovery about their identities and their sexuality through music, through their writing, and through their relationship.
Thanks to Inkyard Press and Netgalley for the digital review copy.