In 1915, Edgar Lee Masters published Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short free verse poems that served as epitaphs for the residents of the fictional Spoon River. Masters gave a voice to the dead – and splayed the ghosts in their closets, their shattered dreams, their angry fists, their vices and virtues, their hopes and dreams, their innocence wide open for the world to peer upon and judge. The book was banned in his hometown where people realized the fictional inhabitants weren’t that far removed from the real inhabitants, but the rest of the country loved it.
I read it in the late 90s and absolutely adored it. The town of Spoon River remains a main character I cannot forget, and snippets of small town America will often call it to mind. As such, it’s not surprising that the town of Big Burr from Celia Laskey’s Under the Rainbow (2020) had me thinking of Spoon River.
Laskey’s collection is one of short stories, not epitaphs. While her characters get the chance at redemption and forgiveness and love, the stories still pack a punch as they reveal a human condition very reminiscent of Masters’s work.
The premises of the collection is that Acceptance Across America (AAA), an LGBTQ nonprofit, has sent a task force to the most homophobic town in America, Big Burr, Kansas. (Big Burr is fictional, but it really could be any small town.) The task force intends to live in this town of hate for two years as part of an experiment to see if they can change the hearts and minds of the residents. The stories are told from members of the task force as well as the townsfolks, and Laskey comes out swinging.
The first story is “Avery” – the very straight daughter of the very gay face of AAA. She doesn’t want to be in Big Burr, and she certainly doesn’t want anyone at school to know who her mom is. She goes to a party and watches one of her classmates pretend her mother, as appearing on the TV screen, is giving him a blow job. She makes some decisions that quickly show this experiment isn’t going to be all rainbows and unicorns.
Avery’s story stings, but not nearly as much as Zach’s – a classmate who becomes her friend and who is very much in the closet. (Big Burr didn’t become the most homophobic town in America for nothing.) He is abused in every sense of the word by his classmates and teachers – his pain and the darkness that he feels depicted in such a matter of fact and hopeless way that I had to take a pause after finishing it. There are so many current accounts that mirror his. Far too many.
The two stories that spoke the strongest to me, however, were Linda’s story and Elsie’s story. Linda’s son dies just as AAA descends upon the town, so she’s had her mind on things other than the “lesbian billboard” that has her neighbor all fired up. She is mourning – her grief leaking from the pages – and she’s so tired of the sympathetic sighs of her neighbors. Without realizing it, she becomes an ally. The task force embraces her, just letting her be her. They respect her grief, and she finds belonging and meaning with these strangers who become friends. Her chapter is beautifully crafted.
Elsie is also a resident of Big Burr. She’s stuck in a nursing home. Her children don’t come see her and only call her as a chore, but Harley comes like clockwork. Harley (they/them) is part of the task force and non-binary. Harley becomes more family than her own children, and Elsie loves them perhaps even more because their relationship isn’t about obligation.
After two years, the task force leaves. Laskey doesn’t leave us empty-handed though. She flashes forward ten years to take us to the wedding of one of Big Burr’s recently divorced, recently out of the closet, hunters.
So was the experiment a success? There was a lot of hurt and hate and darkness, but there was also hope and light and forgiveness. And in the end, love wins. For me, that’s a success.
Read it. Just read it.