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    History and Queerness, Living and Breathing

    One of the things I always find the most frustrating about being queer—and, of course, having grown up knowing I was queer—is the lack of history. Now, I don't mean that the history didn't exist, or that the books aren't there; so often it turned out, later, when I was in university and working full-time at a bookstore, that there were indeed books on queer history. But there was no one to hand them to me. No school librarian would have been brave enough, no teacher would have been aware enough, and certainly, no bookstore stocked anything. I grew up with the vaguest notion of what it meant to be a queer boy defined almost entirely by those who used the word—used all the words—as weaponry. The thing is, though: we—the queer we—existed. We have always existed. We continue to exist. Not that you'd know it, of course. Or at least, you'd be very unlikely to be taught as such, or get beyond a few potential key figures (and even then, in stories that just as often rob them of as much of their queerness as they dare to show). I graduated high school with zero mentions of queer people in any history class, and perhaps only one or two characters—again, not actual historical people—mentioned in English classes. All this to say, historical queer YA like Secret City feels like Julia Watts took that sense of longing for queer history I've always had and wrapped it up in a time and place and gave me a real gift. Ruby is a young woman still in high school, on the edge of adulthood and suddenly moved from her rural Appalachian home to Oak Ridge, a strange place where she is told to tell no secrets, ask no questions, and her father is well paid to work construction on a town that is—somehow—vital to ending World War II. She's a reader, and to her, Oak Ridge feels like an escape from a place where she has never felt at all like she had choices or a future, to somewhere with the grandest things: a library, a cinema, and a school with teachers who challenge her and teach her. Ruby is not much like her own family, who struggle to understand her—though they love her. Her younger sisters are far more excited than she is at the thought of a first date, her mother isn't sure there's any point in the reading she does: after all, she'll be a wife and mother soon enough, and even her father, who can tell she's special and smart, seems worried that special and smart might be a recipe for letdown and unhappiness. Then Ruby meets Iris, a woman who is married to one of the scientists working in Oak Ridge, and they bond over reading, and books, and soon Ruby is babysitting for Iris and helping her after school. And, slowly, realizing that how she feels when she's with Iris and her daughter is likely not how she is supposed to feel at all, according to most. Set in the years leading up to the end of WWII and told through Ruby's journal, the story of Secret City unfolds with history as much a character as Ruby and Iris themselves. Similarly, the character of place and community—Oak Ridge is made up of people pulled in from all over the United States—has a deft and clever imprint: Ruby's Appalachian upbringing leaves her an outcast at school in many ways, until she befriends a West Virginian girl and her brother. The dividing lines of social class are firmly drawn, and in a city built entirely on keeping secrets at any cost, Ruby's unfolding self-awareness is a dangerous secret indeed. Watts manages to do two almost contradictory things with grace in Secret City: One, she pulls no punches with the reality of the time and culture and the impact on Ruby and Iris and the rest of the cast of characters. Two, she still delivers a story built on hope, and self-awareness, and seeds what could have been an entirely tragic realism with seeds of equally realistic hope and joy. It's clear Watts knows her history, and that came through. I loved this book. I know we've always been there, and always existed, but stories like this remind me we did more than survive those times, but also thrived in them.
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